Robert Marc Lehmann’s camera captures incredible animals as they sneak by. He dives with sharks, snuggles with seals and meets endangered species eye to eye. Encounters like these still make him catch his breath and give him goosebumps. In our interview, the marine biologist and nature photographer tells us about the most memorable moments he has experienced in the company of wildlife.
On dive with the hammerhead shark
I have been to many places all over the world. I’ve seen sad, horrifying things. Very rarely do I see a region where animals and nature are thriving. Those are very special moments to me that remind me why I do what I do.
Everyone recognizes that distinctive melody, those two notes just before the Great White Shark appears: dum dum dum dum dum… it simply screams “danger!” A giant fin breaks the surface of the water, swimmers yell in horror, and a panic breaks out. You might be surprised to learn that there were ‘only’ nine lethal incidents involving sharks in 2021. Considering the billions of swimmers, surfers, divers and other watersport enthusiasts who spend time in the sea every year, that is a very low rate. It is safe to say that sharks do not pose a major threat to humans. Humans, on the other hand, are quite lethal to sharks.
Every year, at least 150 million sharks are killed by the fishing industry. Yes, that’s correct: 150 million. They are deliberately targeted and sold for food or medicine (although the medical properties of the resulting products are questionable). Even the cosmetics industry takes a share. On top of that, sharks often end up in fishing nets and on surface longline fishing hooks as bycatch. The body of a shark is barely worth a hundred US dollars. A single kilogram of their sought-after fins, on the other hand, sells for three times as much. They are sold as a luxury delicacy, particularly in Asian countries. Shark fin soup is served as a high-status dish at weddings and other festivities, with a single plate costing more than 100 US dollars. But the meat of the fins is tasteless – as is the method used to extract it. “Shark finning” refers to the practice of cutting the fins off live sharks before discarding their bodies back into the ocean. The animals sink to the bottom of the sea and suffocate slowly over the course of several hours. Not only is this method horrifying and cruel, it also harms the ocean’s ecosystem. Sharks and other cartilaginous fish, of which there are around 1,160 known species, have an important function: they keep the sea healthy and intact.
The impact of sharks is especially clearly visible in places where they are being hunted. Coral reefs often show permanent damage, and biodiversity is much poorer. Countries that protect sharks as an endangered species reap great benefits, as reefs and fish populations can recover, which helps tourism. There are countries which have recognized the positive influence and economic value of sharks. The Bahamas, for instance, is one of the world’s top ten destinations for diving with sharks. The Bahamian islands are home to nearly everything that makes my marine biologist’s heart skip a beat: tiger sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks, bull sharks and, of course, hammerhead sharks. “When I was a little boy, I dreamed of free-diving with a big hammerhead shark. Their heads, their agility and their beauty have always captivated me. In 2019, I finally got my wish! That feeling of entering the sharks’ habitat without diving gear and simply taking in their beauty is totally indescribable. A huge creature, physically superior to me in every way, accepts me into its habitat and simply lets me be. It was a perfect moment for me,” Robert recounts.
While most people would experience nothing but horror in that situation, it was a long-awaited dream come true for Robert: free-diving with a hammerhead shark just once in his life. This stunning female is five meters long and perfectly peaceful. Robert’s presence does not seem to disturb her at all.
At jungle school with the orangutans
And it was only after I took this picture that I comprehended: these are all orphans. Just like humans who have experienced terrible things, they are severely traumatized. It is extremely important that we understand the consequences of our actions. I hope my photographs and my stories can raise awareness.
“Sometimes, my trip take me to places that change my life. Borneo is one of those destinations. I visited it as a photographer and cameraman to document a rescue center for injured and orphaned orangutans. It houses young orangutans between one and ten years of age alongside some teenagers and young adults. In total, the carers look after about 70 animals around the clock. The Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra are home to a population of approximately 64,000 orangutans of all species. Since the 1950s, their number has declined by 90 per cent.
There are many reasons for this decline in the great-ape population, with habitat loss being the most pressing problem. Large parts of the primary and secondary rainforest are being cleared for business interests, for example, to make way for oil palm plantations. Around 100 years ago, nearly 90% of the area making up Sumatra and Borneo was covered in forests. Only a third of these forests remain today. The orangutans are not only losing their home, the deforestation measures often injure the animals gravely, with many burning to death in the trees.
It takes nearly a decade before the little orangutans can leave the rescue station and return to freedom. Their human carers must teach them everything they would normally have learned from their mothers, which takes an enormous amount of time and dedication. That is why the orangutans go to jungle school and train their ape skills every day. As I was watching the young apes play, I realized: consumerism and the habits of every single one of us are affecting the lives of these incredible creatures.
Proceed with caution: a doe-eyed predator
As the sun kisses the horizon off Heligoland, a photogenic gray seal waves at the camera, with kelp tickling her stomach under water. The perfect moment, the perfect photograph! National Geographic’s photo jury agreed, making Robert its Photographer of the Year in 2015.
“I’m hiding in the long kelp, inching ever closer – it’s already taken me an hour and a half! My body lies flat on the ground, submerged in water; only my head is just about poking out. With slow kicks of the fin, I approach the female gray seal snoozing on a rock. The 50°F water chills me to the bones. I can barely feel my hands gripping the camera. Finally, the perfect moment has arrived: the sun is setting behind the horizon, the seal lifts her fin – click. Done. My best picture ever! It was one of the most emotional moments in my wildlife photography career.
Only through many years of experience with these animals and my intimate familiarity with their habitat was I able to capture this scene for eternity. My ultimate goal is to document natural behaviors and show the world the unembellished truth. Besides equipment and patience, animal photographers need one thing: an intuitive understanding of what’s in front of their camera. It’s extremely important to assess the situation correctly. What is the animal doing? Am I disturbing its natural behavior? No matter what wild animals you are watching, it is crucial to keep a distance, not to underestimate the animals and to show them the respect they deserve. Not just with tigers in India but also with gray seals in Heligoland.
While these playful, doe-eyed animals may look like pets, they must be treated with extreme caution. The gray seal is Germany’s largest, heaviest predator. A bull can weigh up to 300 kilograms and measure up to three meters. With sharp claws and jaws like a bear’s, these agile animals even hunt harbor seals and porpoises. In 2014, I became the first person ever to film a grown gray-seal bull devour a harbor seal under water – something that had never been documented before. For a long time, the seals were widely believed to be pure piscivores.
Free-diving with gray seals is not for people who are quick to panic under water. While one seal has a nibble of my headgear, the other is trying to steal my flippers.
Holidaymakers needn’t worry, however: gray seals are quite friendly around humans. Small injuries, such as scratches, occasionally happen when swimmers meet curious seals, but they tend to be harmless.
Germany’s seal population has been on the rise since the nineties. The island of Heligoland even saw a record this winter, with more baby seals being born than in any year since records began in the winter of 1996/97. This is great news and shows that Germany is up there with the best when it comes to wildlife. So, if you are looking for an outdoor adventure with real predators, there’s no need to travel far. Just bear in mind: keep a distance of at least 30 meters. Unless the seals approach you of their own accord.