The photographer who swims with sharks and polar bears

A polar bear family swimming over Amos Nachoum’s head. Photo © Amos Nachoum

By Abigail Klein Leichman for Israel21c

Prize-winning nature photographer Amos Nachoum says there’s no such thing as a killer whale or a man-eating shark.

Supersized sea creatures certainly do sink their prodigious choppers into prey. But despite an occasional ‘test bite’ of a person, sharks and other underwater predators have no natural appetite for humans. If they did, Nachoum wouldn’t have made it to a healthy 70 years of age.

Nachoum’s photos of sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, anacondas, crocodiles and other magnificent animals grace the pages of publications such as National Geographic, Time, Life, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, People and Esquire. His many awards include BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

“I found out in the 1980s and ’90s that there was a lot of fear and misconceptions about these animals. I took it on myself to bring people an emotional connection with them, not just to take pictures,” says Nachoum.

The award-winning 2019 documentary Picture of His Life by Israeli filmmakers Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin spectacularly depicts Nachoum’s quest to photograph polar bears underwater.

“Twelve people have landed on the moon; over 4 000 people summited Everest. Only five people swam with polar bears,” Nachoum says with pride. “And I was the only one able to capture [on film] not one but two or three polar bear families in the water.”

One polar bear chased him to a depth of almost 25 meters.

“This is against all knowledge of how deep polar bears can go. Only two people out of the four who dived before with them reported seeing them go below 10 meters. So I learned something new and shared it with everyone else.”

Nachoum escaped the deep-diving bear simply by swimming faster and deeper. These animals may not crave a human lunch but being in their habitat does present dangers.

“Wildlife photography is difficult and there is always a level of safety I need to calculate to remain alive,” he says.

“When you go in the water, you lose 50 percent of your ability to think fast and properly because your brain/computer doesn’t have solid ground under its feet. Your spirit needs to adjust itself all the time.”

Full of chutzpah

Nachoum related strongly to the famous Theodor Herzl quotation, “Im tirzu einzo agada,” “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“That was very profound in my upbringing,” he told ISRAEL21c. “That was my main drive. No matter what people told me and how they rejected me, I thought I can do it.”

Nachoum’s father wanted his son to be a carpenter, not a photographer.

“My family were all hardworking people, so for them what I wanted to do was very unacceptable,” he explains.

Nevertheless, after serving in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and other battles, Nachoum departed for New York and drove a taxi to support himself.

“It took a lot of chutzpah. I had no money, no higher education and an Israeli accent. I had no family in America to depend on, and I chose not to live in Israeli ‘kibbutzim’ in Queens or Brooklyn,” he recalls.

In 1977, Nachoum started running diving trips to Eilat, and soon branched out to exotic locations such as the Galapagos Islands.

Since 1980, Nachoum’s Big Animals Global Expeditions has taken more than 5,000 people to explore and photograph land and sea creatures from the North Pole to Antarctica.

Diving and climbing with predators

The success of BigAnimals allowed Nachoum to develop his expensive photography passion.

“When I decided to be a full-time photographer in the late 1980s, underwater photography was popular, and I had to find a niche that would be my signature. And that was to be with the ocean giants,” he told ISRAEL21c.

“The magazines didn’t pay enough, so I created my own expedition company to cover my expenses. That’s part of the chutzpah.”

He wants people on his expeditions, and those looking at his images at home, to feel an intimate connection with the animals and understand the urgency of conservation efforts.

One poignant image he shares in TEDx presentations shows a grieving young orca mother carrying around her dead calf for a week. “Orcas suffer 30 to 40 percent mortality in the wild because of the poisoning of the sea,” says Nachoum.

He explains that he aims to be an “imaging storyteller” about nature.

“Diving with whales, polar bears, anacondas and Nile crocodiles seems crazy. But I’m a photographer first, not a diver or a climber. I dive and climb to get my images for the sake of protecting nature and leading by example.”

Expeditions and conservation

The pandemic put a halt on the trips but Nachoum hopes to resume leading expeditions in December.

“I’m planning to add more conservation activities to the adventures,” he says.

“People will participate in research during the trip, measuring water and air temperatures, animal behavior and populations. We’ll send the information to leading conservation agencies to enrich their knowledge.”

His specialty trip for the next year or two will focus on blue whales in the Azores and in the southeast Asian island nation of Timor-Leste.

“The blue whale is the largest animal that ever lived on the planet,” he says. “It’s over 100 feet long, 120 to 180 tons, bigger than any dinosaur. But it eats only plankton.”

The itinerary for next year ranges from anacondas and jaguars in Brazil to rays and orcas in Baja. He also plans a private project to search for clouded leopards in the rainforest.

Nachoum, a California resident since 1992, has long since earned the respect of his family back in Israel.

“I have no regrets for following my heart in spite of the hardships I went through to get to where I am today,” he says.

He tells parents: “Encourage your kids to express what is in their minds and hearts, to excel in what interests them rather than try to fit them into a square hole.”

Diver Andre Hartman encounters a great white shark off the coast of South Africa. Photo © Amos Nachoum

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