Wildlife Photographer exhibition - FREE after admission

Diving with grey nurse sharks can be a thrilling experience. They are fully equipped with quintessential shark-like characteristics such as a streamline body, powerful tail and a formidable set of pointed dentures.

Yet their bark is worse than their bite, and a case of mistaken identity left them wrongly accused of a spate of shark attacks off Sydney beaches in the 1960s. Large numbers were targeted by divers wielding spear-guns loaded with an explosive power head that detonated on impact. Their docile nature and aggregating behaviour made them easy targets and by the mid-80’s they had been hunted to the brink of extinction.

They have made a slow comeback since their protection in 1984 and divers travel from all over the world to experience a close encounter with this species, as they tour an underwater highway of rocky reef between Fraser Island in Queensland and Montague Island in New South Wales.

Amongst the best locations to photograph this species is off a rocky outcrop that barely breaks the surface known as Seal Rocks. Sometime between March and May each year large numbers gather here amongst a series of steep-walled rocky gutters at a location known as ‘The Grotto’.

This exceptional meeting is brief and difficult to predict, making it particularly challenging to photograph. The East Australian Current flows powerfully through the area like a river, and often brings dirty water. The site is also deep, so the lighting is challenging and requires a delicate balance of natural and artificial light.

After several failed attempts over consecutive seasons, I slid off the back of the boat on this day and was greeted by cobalt blue water and dark silhouettes of sharks milling about the reef below. With the current running strong, I descended quickly and sought shelter in the lee of a rocky ledge I had come to know during previous visits.

While framing this photographic opportunity I noticed the hook and the shark seemed to look towards me as if recalling its recent encounter with mankind. I held my composure and felt both at once concerned for the shark, but pleased I had been given the opportunity to tell its story - an all too familiar one, where mankind in search for greater resources leaves nature to suffer the consequences.

Although it is cliché, nature photography provides a voice for our natural world. I am pleased that my image is included in this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Australian Museum. The exhibition is a celebration of nature, and pays testament to all the hard-working nature photographers out there that provide a voice for a seldom seen and often forgotten world.

Justin Gilligan is a freelance photojournalist with an honours degree in marine science and a passion for all things natural.