When photographer Al McGlashan jumped into the Pacific Ocean off Port Stephens, Australia, earlier this month, his assignment was to film a textbook release of a striped marlin caught and tagged by New South Wales fisheries officials. But a 10-foot mako shark that had been stalking the shoot flipped the script. Streaking past the stunned photographer, the big predator ripped into the marlin as McGlashan captured the ferocious attack from a few feet away. Field & Stream got a U.S. exclusive on his photos, video and the story behind them.
McGlashan had just finished taking close-ups, intended to be instructional photos, of fisheries officials demonstrating the proper technique for preparing a marlin for release after tagging. Australian anglers tag and release more than 2,500 striped marlins for science every year as part of the New South Wales Game Fish Tagging program. Started in 1973, it is the largest saltwater tagging program of its kind in the world and is used to obtain information on the biology (distribution, movement, growth, exploitation) of billfish, tunas, sharks and sport fish and enlists game anglers in the management of the fishery.
The footage, intended for almcglashan.com and other Web sites, was supposed to show anglers the right way to revive and release a big billfish, with its head submerged and water running over its gills. The crew used a baited 50-pound line to catch this 170 pounder, which isn’t huge for a marlin. The fish seemed to handle the experience fine, and the prospects for a clean release looked good.
Fisheries officer Phil Bolton (center), water police officer Paul Ford (left) and deckhand Roddy Findlay (right) worked aboard the Strikezone as McGlashan filmed from the water. In this photo, Ford is actually demonstrating improper technique by holding the fish’s head above the water.
“The whole idea is to swim the fish beside the boat for a few seconds with its head underwater to give it time to recover,” McGlashan says. “But it didn’t quite go to plan.”
The Sydney-based photographer captured this perspective before he moved away from the boat to document the release with digital photographs and HD video.
McGlashan swam 6 to 8 feet from boat, with his back to the marlin. When he turned around, he saw an incredible sight in his viewfinder: a giant mako had moved in for a meal. “They were about to let the fish go for that perfect shot of it swimming away, and as I came around the fish struck,” McGlashan recalls. “You can actually see on the video, I look up and go, ‘Oh crap, this has changed everything!’ And the blokes in the boat had no idea what was happening.”
McGlashan didn’t believe it himself at first. “‘That is real, isn’t it?’ I remember thinking. ‘That’s a bloody big mako!'” While looking at the shark, McGlashan decided, since he couldn’t get to the boat, he might as well snap as many pictures as he could and hope the shark didn’t change his mind about the meal it was pursuing.
His photographer’s instincts took over, and he kept shooting: “I’m going, snap, snap, snap and I’m really hoping these pictures come out. I knew this would make awesome pictures.” Meanwhile, the crew had finally figured out exactly what they were dealing with and began shouting for Al to get out of the water. Problem was, 600 pounds of hungry shark stood between him and the boat.
“The interesting thing is, (we realized later) that shark had been there for the last 15 to 20 minutes of the fight,” McGlashan says. “We had marked him on the fish finder; we thought it was another big marlin and even put a bait out to try to catch him.” For now, McGlashan knew only that he was witnessing something rare and extraordinary: an underwater view of the ocean’s fiercest predator in action. “I think at all times I was actually pretty safe, because the shark had his intended victim from the start, he knew what he was going to eat, he’d been there watching, and it was no coincidence that the moment I moved away he (attacked). As soon as I’m out of his way, he came in. So I wasn’t really that scared; I was actually amazed by the experience. I was definitely daunted by his size. I’ve been in the water with lots of creatures over the years, but to see one that big when he’s in full hunting mode, to see what he can actually do–it’s like, holy-moly, this is real.”
Looking back, another oddity of the catch made sense, McGlashan says. “We couldn’t work out why the marlin was playing up so much when he should have been tired out at the end of the fight. He was very erratic in his behavior. In retrospect, he obviously didn’t want to be anywhere near us or what was beneath him. “Obviously that shark was sitting there watching the whole time, and as soon as I moved away from the fish he launched his attack.”
The encounter lasted less than a minute, though it seemed much longer to McGlashan at the time. “I couldn’t believe how quick it was when I watched the video,” he says. “It seemed like hours. You know how they say time stands still when you stare death in the eye? Now I know what they mean.” The mako struck first at the marlin’s anal fin and literally mouthed its way down toward the tail, McGlashan recalls. “He didn’t turn or cut or bite until he came down toward the tail, and then he clean cut the tail off. With big fish like swordfish or tuna or marlin, makos almost always bite the tail off; it instantly disarms the fish.”
That’s when McGlashan began to worry. “Blood in the water: That’s what I didn’t like. Once the blood came in to play, I went, ‘You know what? It’s time to get out of the water.’ Once he ripped the tail off, I couldn’t see the shark through all the blood. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to jump back in the boat.'” But the boat, he says, looked miles away. “I’m thinking, ‘Why don’t the guys drive over to me? I’ve got to swim to the boat?’ I’m like, ‘Come to me you bastards! Don’t leave me over here!'” he laughs. “And it’s right there, 8 feet away. I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, how am I going to get through this, I can’t get to the boat. And it’s only 30 seconds. Roddy, he’s screaming, ‘Swim straight to the boat, Al.’ And I’m like, ‘Bloody hell, where else am I gonna to swim? What, I’m going to have a cruise around, now there’s blood all over the water?'”
McGlashan skirted the blood cloud and scrambled back into the boat. The shark–unnerved by the photographer’s presence in the water, McGlashan thinks–did not return. Findlay, McGlashan (center) and Ford recovered the marlin and posed for this shot. As he told his story to his mates, McGlashan remembered feeling a big swirl of water as he was turning back toward the boat before the mako struck. “I wonder if that was the shark going past as he came in on his attack. I had 600 pounds of shark there and he’s rocketing up from the depths. That pushes a bit of water out of the way.”
McGlashan was back in the Pacific the next day with his camera, photographing the sea life he loves so well.
More often than not, those creatures–like this beautiful striped marlin–are as curious of him and he is of them, McGlashan notes. But he says his encounter with the mako, far from shaking his lifelong love for the sea, has given him a new respect for its power. “I jumped straight back in the next day, but it was with a different feel. I’ve seen sharks attack marlin before from the boat. But when you see it from their eyes, in the water, it gives you a newfound respect for what goes on under the surface. “It’s actually given me more confidence to go in the water. I’d have more fear if there were a second shark there, which you are not likely to find with a big mako, because they hunt alone. It shows that we’re not their intended victim.”
One of Australia’s most high profile anglers and outdoor journalists, McGlashan, 37, has published his work in Marlin, Sportfishing, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, and Salt Water Sportsman magazines, and he hosts the “Strikezone” TV and DVD series. His previous high point as an angler came last year, when he boated this 154.7 kilo record southern bluefin tuna, the largest ever caught in Australia on 50-lb. tackle. “We caught it for the TV series. We drove halfway across the country at night, arrived the next morning and hooked it up in the first hour. It took seven hours to land, because we got it up after three hours and one of the guys–who will remain nameless–missed it on the gaffe.” Another time, fishing 100 kilometers off the south coast of New South Wales, McGlashan encountered a huge school of bluefin tuna. “Instead of catching them I jumped in and swam with them,” he says. “We were in 4,000 meters of water, and I sit here now and think, ‘What the hell was swimming around with me then?’ Makos love to follow those bluefin around.”
But being in the water while a 10-foot shark savages a marlin less than five yards away tops it all. “I think it’s the most unique thing I’ve done, for sure,” McGlashan says. Others who’ve seen the photographs and video agree. Amy Wilkes, a marine biologist and shark expert at the Sydney Aquarium, told the Australian news program “A Current Affair” that the footage is “a one-in-a-million kind of shot.” “Makos are so fast; they come in, they grab their prey and then they’re gone again,” Wilkes said. “To be there right at that exact moment and catch it, it’s phenomenal, really. In one word, spectacular.” Click here to see McGlashan’s amazing video of the attack.
When photographer Al McGlashan jumped into the Pacific Ocean off Port Stephens, Australia, earlier this month, his assignment was to film a textbook release of a striped marlin. But a 10-foot mako shark that had been stalking the shoot flipped the script as McGlashan captured the ferocious attack from a few feet away. Field & Stream got a U.S. exclusive on the photos, video and the story behind them.