Unlike some other underwater photographers we’ve spoken to, Tanya’s career did not begin in underwater photography, but remained an unfulfilled dream for the most part. In 2009, she finally took her first dive into the water, where her love and fascination for sharks blossomed. Upon realisation of their imminent extinction, Tanya was compelled to reveal the beautiful, intelligent, and fragile side of these misunderstood creatures. In 2015, she left the corporate world to pursue underwater photography and marine conservation full-time, earning numerous major international awards such as two First Place prizes in the categories of ‘Sharks’ and ‘Shipwrecks’ in the 2015 World Shootout, and also being named a Grand Master in Underwaterphotography.com’s 2016 Annual Awards. She currently works with and contributes to several marine conservation and education organisations including Ocean First Institute, Discovery Deep, Mission Blue, and Ocean Geographic Explorers.

In Grand Cayman, A school of horse eye jacks swirls around the wreck of the Kittiwake

What made you want to become an underwater photographer?

There were two reasons that I wanted to become an underwater photographer. The first was to try to show the public how amazing sharks are, and to hopefully convince people to care about and want to protect them. The second reason I got into underwater photography was to document my son’s journey as a diver. My 20-year old son, Richard, has autism, and started diving almost three years ago when he earned his Open Water certification through the Handicapped Scuba Association. I guess a lot of my photography is about dispelling misconceptions – both those that the public has about sharks, and also those about what people with disabilities are capable of.

Tanya’s son Richard encounters a manatee while snorkeling in Crystal River, Florida

Your first underwater shot?

My most memorable underwater shot is a recent photo that I took only a little more than a month ago, of a sand tiger shark swimming toward me in a massive bait ball of fish off the coast of North Carolina. I’m still shocked at how well it resonated with the public; I never imagined it would go viral and be seen around the world. The day I took the image, I was diving the wreck of the Caribsea with several friends. As we descended to the wreck, we were treated to the largest bait ball of fish that I’ve ever seen. There were a few dozen sand tiger sharks around, lazily swimming in and out of the bait ball. I slowly drifted into the bait ball where the wall of fish was so thick that it blocked out the ambient light. I noticed this particular sand tiger shark coming toward me when it was about 6 feet away. I started shooting, expecting the shark to turn away as they typically do. But this one moved straight toward me, and didn’t turn away until we nearly made physical contact. As it came toward me, the fish moved out of the way, giving the appearance of the shark swimming though a tunnel.

A sand tiger shark emerges from a “tunnel” of fish surrounded by a massive bait ball off the coast of North Carolina

Where is your favourite dive destination?

My favourite destination is Morehead City, North Carolina, which is great because it’s only a five-hour drive from where I live, so I don’t have to get on an airplane. I really enjoy diving the shipwrecks that line the coast of North Carolina, but most of all I love seeing the sand tiger sharks that frequent the wrecks. There are more than just sharks though; North Carolina has some amazing big marine life, from dolphins to turtles to huge southern stingrays, and even the occasional manta. Every dive is different, and you never know what you’re going to see.

A sand tiger shark above the wreck of the USCGC Spar in the waters off of North Carolina

The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?

I’d love to dive the Arctic and Antarctic. I think it would be incredible to photograph the ice formations close-up, and to see all the animals that live in the polar regions, especially the whales! I’m a wide-angle photographer, yet I’ve never been in the water with a whale. I need to do something about that!

The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?

The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen underwater is also the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Last year, while diving the wreck of the Caribsea off of North Carolina, I came upon a sand tiger shark lying on the sea floor who had been stabbed through the back of the head. She was still alive, but paralyzed. She had been hooked, and instead of simply cutting the line and releasing her (which you are required to do by law since sand tigers are a protected species), someone stabbed her before throwing her overboard. She couldn’t move, couldn’t eat, and could only breathe through her left gill. There was nothing we could do for her. Other divers saw her over the next two days, and then she was gone. She probably died and was scavenged. And just last month, nearly a year to the day since this incident, I saw the exact same thing had happened to another sand tiger shark that I found stabbed on the sea floor. She was paralyzed and slowly dying. It absolutely broke my heart. I simply cannot understand such cruelty.

The underside of a sand tiger shark surrounded by millions of small bait fish in the waters of North Carolina

What camera equipment are you currently using?

My camera body is the Olympus OM-D E-M1, and my go-to wide angle lens is the Olympus m.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 fisheye. I use a Nauticam housing and a Zen DP170 glass dome port, with the Nauticam 4.33” acrylic dome port with 20mm extension ring as my back-up. For the past few years I’ve been using Sea&Sea strobes, but I recently switched to the i-Divesite Symbiosis SS-2 strobes, which I used for the first time while diving North Carolina last month. The SS-2s have video lights mounted to the top of each strobe. I don’t do video, but having the video lights on my strobes may motivate me to finally start learning how to shoot video.

What is the highlight of your career?

The highlight of my career so far was when I was asked to work with researchers in North Carolina to use my photography to assist with their study of sand tiger sharks. The reason I picked up a camera in the first place was to try to help sharks, so to be directly involved in shark research is a dream come true. Knowing more about the health of the populations of sand tiger sharks off the east coast of the U.S. will enable us to better manage their conservation and protection.

A lemon shark swims through the sun rays off the coast of Grand Bahama

… And the low point?

The low points are whenever self-doubt starts creeping in. There are times I feel confident in my work, and other times I start to doubt my abilities as a photographer. When I start to feel this way, I remind myself that it’s not always about capturing stunning images. My ultimate goal is to try to motivate people to care more about the ocean and its inhabitants. That goal is more important than any image I will ever take.

A large school of bigeye trevally at Cocos Island, Costa Rica

Any advice that you’d like to give to aspiring underwater photographers?

Be your own worst critic. There is room for improvement in every photograph, so try to take an honest look at your work and ask yourself what you could do better. If there is something you want to improve upon but don’t know how, don’t be afraid to ask. Get instruction, attend a workshop, or experiment with different techniques. Keep striving to improve and never stop learning.

Two southern stingrays glide over the sand in the shallow waters of Grand Cayman

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