He swims with sharks (and lives to tell about it)

Tim Briggs swims with a whale shark. Photo by: Tre’ Packard | PangeaSeed Foundation 2018

Shortly before Shark Week kicked off Sunday, Northeastern marine biology student Tim Briggs traveled to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to swim with the largest of the species. About an hour off the island’s coast is the greatest aggregation of whale sharks in the world.

Tim Briggs uses his passion for underwater photography to promote marine life conservation. Photo courtesy of Tim Briggs.

Using a mirrorless camera, Briggs documented the monumental gathering for Pangeaseed, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about ocean issues through art-based advocacy. Volcom, an environmentally conscious clothing company, regularly partners with Pangeaseed and sponsored his trip.

But this isn’t his first time in shark-infested waters. Briggs swam with nurse sharks in 2016 off Panama’s Caribbean coast during his Three Seas year with Northeastern. The next year, it was bull sharks in the waters near Cabo Pulmo, Mexico.

That initial encounter proved to be a life-changing experience. Briggs realized he could use his passion for underwater photography to promote marine life conservation.

What was your trip to Isla Mujeres like?

It was a little stressful. The first day that I was down there, we had somewhere between 50 and 100 whale sharks around us. They came to eat tuna eggs, so we got to swim with them for three days. But there were so many whale sharks that if you were taking photos of one, you could look behind you and there would be another one coming straight for you. But whale sharks aren’t dangerous. They have really small teeth and filter feed like a whale. The only threat is potentially getting slapped by a tail because they’re very large and very fast swimmers.

Why sharks—what keeps you coming back?

It’s exciting to be in water with a shark. They’re usually the biggest thing you can see, short of going in the water with a whale. They just capture your attention.

Are you ever scared?

Most sharks aren’t dangerous, so I have never been scared. But I’m definitely a bit more on edge when there’s a bull shark in the water, but not necessarily from fear. I haven’t had any hairy actions, but I know if you’re getting attacked by a shark you basically want to punch it. It’s really all you can do. I’ve done a lot of surfing in areas with great whites and try not to focus on the fact that they’re probably around, especially if there are seals and sea lions.

What sparked this fascination with the ocean?

I actually grew up in rural Connecticut but my family is from coastal Massachusetts. Half of them have always been big divers. When I was 12, my cousins who were about my age were getting certified, so my brother and I got certified, too. I started diving from there and taking photos around the same time. It took awhile for the interests to collide, but I realized the coolest things I’ve seen in my life are underwater.

What’s your favorite shark species that you’ve encountered?

Definitely whale sharks—they’re so huge and really beautiful. They have incredible patterns, it’s actually my computer background. I love it.

Do you have any shark-related goals for the future?

I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go to South Africa sometime soon and get in a cage with a great white. I wouldn’t necessarily do a free swim. There are people who do that and they are incredible. If you spend years with these sharks, learning their behaviors, you know when to get out of the water—I would love to get there. I’d also like to be able to make ocean storytelling my full-time job and to continue working with nonprofits and companies to tell marine stories.  

Do you have any tips for people in New England if they encounter a shark? The seal population is rising and shark sightings are becoming much more common.

Stay calm, you don’t want to be flailing underwater. Keep an eye on them. Try to avoid places where there are lots of seals, but shark attacks are really rare. You’re much more likely to die buried in sand at the beach than by being bitten by a shark.