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Sean Kirst: From the fury of Erie to the majesty of the great white shark

Remember the photographer who captured those stunning images of ferocious waves on Lake  Erie?

He is at it again, but this time his subject is great white sharks, not the Great Lakes.

In a way, David Sandford explains, there is a connection. A renowned Canadian sports photographer - he has photographed many hockey games in Buffalo - he grew up in London, Ont., not far from Port Stanley and Lake Erie. He was intrigued by tales of the lake's ferocity, by the way awestruck men and women who traveled Erie's waters spoke of it in a fashion that gave the lake a brooding personality.

Over the past couple of years, Sandford  captured those moods with his camera. He waded into the lake on stormy days when surging waves rose far above his head. His photos from Erie went around the world. They showed up in The Washington Post and Maclean's magazine. That growing prestige as a nature photographer allowed Sandford the opportunity to pursue another passion:

Twice now - most recently in May - he has gone to the Neptune Islands in Australia to photograph great whites.

Sean Kirst: The Lake Erie photos that exploded around the world

A David Sandford image, great white shark, Neptune Islands, Australia.

There is no doubt the Erie photos helped to make it happen. He said he worked out a cooperative agreement with the company that allowed him to dive, Calypso Star Charters. In both instances, Sandford went underwater in an 8-foot-high aluminum cage he describes as "a glorified shopping cart," with large gaps that allow for better photography.

He had dreamed of seeing a great white in the wild since he was a little boy, a dream that only intensified in the 1970s, after he saw the movie "Jaws."

"The first time one appeared before me, coming from a distance head on toward me, it was pretty emotional," he said of his work in the Neptune Islands.

Great white shark, Neptune islands, Australia. (Image courtesy David Sandford)

There are only 4,000 great whites alive in all the oceans, Sandford said. The odds of an typical person ever seeing one are infinitesimal. In that cage, in a blue sea far from home, it fully occurred to Sandford that he was in the presence of a creature of rare, utterly wild majesty.

For a moment, stunned and overwhelmed, he wept.

He guesses he has seen about 25 great whites, ranging in size from nine feet to more than 17 feet long. Two of the largest sharks - great whites nicknamed "Buffy" and "Bentley" - appeared on both of his excursions.

Every shark has its own personality, he said. He has never felt threatened, but he said some sharks hang back while others are more daring and curious. They are complex, individual, completely distinct. It upsets Sandford when he hears people speaking of the "dead eyes" of a shark; he has seen them from inches away, "when it's just amazing to lock eyes, and they're really beautiful, with a deep blue iris."

To Sandford, "the notion that they're a mindless eating machine is just ridiculous."


David Sandford photographs a great white shark. (Image by Warren Keelan, courtesy David Sandford)

Sandford has been close enough to study the scars, often in detailed patterns, that show up on many sharks, wounds he said were most likely inflicted while the animals mated or when a seal - under attack - fought back. Some of the great whites exceed 4,000 pounds.

The most unforgettable aspect "is seeing how fast they really are," he said. "They can look like they're barely moving, and then to see them turn it on - to go from 3 mph to 25 mph in a second and a half - is just mind-blowing."

I asked Sandford if this impression is correct: The strength of his Lake Erie images lies in his ability to pinpoint the frightening, almost mystic power of the lake - a quality easy to forget in everyday life, a quality that inspires awe and respect. I asked if he finds the same essence in a great white shark.

"I'd say this," Sandford said. "Everything in this world is made of energy and is literally about energy." He made the point that if you capture an energy people feel but rarely see, then you evoke some deeper meaning, some communal truth.

"The sharks, like Lake Erie, are both beautiful and have something mysterious about them," he said.

He hopes we understand - once that opened up before him - why he wept.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

"Curse of the Pharoahs:" One of David Sandford's stunning photos of Lake Erie, near Port Stanley, Ont. (Image courtesy of David Sandford)


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