(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, December 9, 2021
© Tom Boyd
© Deron Verbeck
Deron Verbeck is a bluewater photographer who brings to view a captivating world few people ever get to visit. He is able to navigate this notoriously dangerous environment through years of experience and a healthy respect for the ocean and its marine creatures. Deron spends most days on the water both playing and working, as a boat operator and guide. On his days off, Deron and his buddies go out on adventures in the blue water around the Big Island of Hawaii. Their focus is photography, especially sharks, but they carry spearfishing and fishing gear ready for whatever opportunity “surfaces”. On the water, they scan the ocean for signs of life, looking for marine debris or pilot whales, which often have Oceanic whitetips hanging around or possibly a Silky shark. And they stop by Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) to see what may turn up. When the experimental Keauhou Fish Cage was in operation, they regularly visited this structure that created its own ecosystem and pulled in fish and sharks, which provided opportunity for great photos.
Deron began scuba diving in Hawaii in 1992 as a commercial spearfisherman working the nearshore reefs. However, his conscience quickly got to him as he realized spearfishing in this environment didn’t feel sustainable for the ecosystem. So he turned his skills in the water into a career in competitive freediving in 2001. After his sponsorship dried up with the stock market crash in 2008/2009, he left the competitive circuit but he never left freediving. Instead, his passion took him back to the waters around Hawaii but this time he was no longer diving the nearshore reefs—he picked up a camera and went into “the blue”.
Deron started capturing images as proof of his adventures and to better explain what he was seeing out in this blue water. He quickly upgraded his small camera to professional photography equipment as he realized he had the ability to tell a story about these marine creatures that few people could observe. His images could provide a better understanding of this unknown world.
© Deron Verbeck
His camera was what led him to his involvement with shark tagger. One day in 2018 he was photographing an Oceanic whitetip shark and noticed a strange object hanging off of its body below its dorsal fin. He looked closer and realized it was a research tag. He posted the photo on Facebook and was quickly connected with Melanie Hutchinson. This act spurred the idea to get more fishers and divers involved and started the Hawaii Community Tagging Program. Deron quickly became an asset to this program with his skills as a freediver and photographer. For the Hawaii Community Tagging Program, he has tagged Oceanic and Silky sharks with acoustic, satellite, and ID tags and photographed Oceanic whitetips for photo identification to match individual sharks by the unique pigmentation on their dorsal fin.
Deron’s involvement with shark research doesn’t stop with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program. Many researchers have called on Deron as his experience on the water around Hawaii and his photography and freediving skills allow him to get close to pelagic sharks and document information that is critical to the understanding of these animals. He has worked with Smithsonian and Yannis Papastamatiou to put cameras on Oceanic whitetip sharks that associate with pilot whales, tagged the first Whale shark in Hawaii and participated in tagging Hammerhead sharks with James Anderson.
One photo session with an Oceanic whitetip shark opened a window into its mysterious life and led to a scientific publication (Papastamatiou et al. 2020) and a story in National Geographic. Deron was taking photos of the shark and noticed a perplexing pattern of white dots along its body. Once he got home, he blew up his images and it became clear that he was staring at sucker marks from a battle this shark had with a Giant squid!
But what is the coolest thing that Deron has ever seen and photographed in the water? He tells me a story of when he participated in a research expedition tracking Mid-Pacific orcas—a lesser studied Orca ecotype that is ⅓ the size and without the white saddle patch of those in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska... As the boat motored up to the whales, they could see there was something in one of the Orca’s mouths. A researcher on the project exclaimed that Deron needed to get in the water to get this on camera. The boat driver positioned, so he could slip into the water without causing much disturbance. There in the blue water, he watched in awe as an orca pod of seven whales fed on a Bigeye thresher shark. The shark was tossed between the whales and chunks of flesh were torn off and eaten. He captured an extremely rare shot that day of a Bigeye thresher in the mouth of a female orca with the shark’s long, whip-like tail. These Mid-Pacific orcas are known to eat rays, sharks, and squid mostly documented from examination of stomach contents from animals washed ashore. Deron’s photos documented a direct observation of these Orcas' feeding behavior.
With each dive, there is potential for new discoveries or first encounters. Between our initial interview and writing up this story, Deron had another very cool experience, one that would send shivers down most people’s spine! He was on a shore dive following the current around Keahole Pt. in Kona (offshore of the Kona airport) and had just turned around after about 30 minutes of diving. He was slowly kicking against the current and was about to call it a day. But then he noticed an ulua in the deep at 100+ feet. When swimming along ledges, like this day, he always keeps an eye into the deep water to see what he might find. In the past he had seen huge schools of ulua, so he hoped that this one would manifest into a school he could photograph. But he noticed something else in the distance that appeared as a white line in the deep water. He went through possibilities in his head...pelagic manta ray? whale shark? But neither seemed plausible with the coloration. As the animal approached he realized it was a shark, but still couldn’t make out the species, maybe a tiger or a mako? As he realized what was swimming directly at him, he quickly flipped on his GoPro. It was a massive female great white shark! With two beats of her tail she was quickly moving up the ledge, and he was now on high alert! As she got closer, she slowed her pace. But Deron’s heart continued to race as the great white’s body appeared bigger and bigger with her approach. At about ten feet away, she turned. Deron cautiously turned with her to swim alongside. But this seemed to spook the shark and with one powerful flick of her tail she sped away. Deron surfaced for a couple of quick breaths and followed her into the deep over the drop off. But the shark kept up speed and disappeared into the blue. He laughed and yelled as she swam off—excited by his first encounter with one of the most fearsome predators to ever swim the oceans! (Check out video here.)
While Deron’s photos have provided more knowledge on shark behavior, his time in the water has also spurred more questions… As he observes fresh mating scars on Oceanic whitetip sharks, he is curious “Where do these sharks mate?” As he sees young Silkys but never young Oceanic whitetip sharks, he wonders “Where do these sharks give birth?” He also notices seasonal changes in local abundance of Oceanic whitetip sharks, so he asks the question “Where do these sharks go when they are not in the area? And he seldom sees a big Oceanic whitetip shark, so ponders “Are these sharks all fished out or just not in the area? These are the questions that he hopes he can help answer with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program through the tags he deploys and the photos he takes of each Oceanic whitetip shark for photo identification.
Most importantly Deron wants to spread the word that sharks are aggressive and need to be considered with respect. He wants to share his images of these captivating animals on social media but doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea that these animals are cute and cuddly or be the cause for people to get in the water with sharks without understanding their true nature. He is concerned that many people are portraying these apex predators as puppy dogs and humanizing aggressive or territorial behavior as “zesty”. Deron is able to take people around these animals, because he sticks to small groups of only two to three divers and has years of experience around the sharks around Hawaii. He constantly is watching the sharks, reading their behavior, and looking for anything out of the norm. He understands that they each have different personalities and that they are unpredictable. And he is quick to pull people out of the water (or not put them in there in the first place) if the situation seems risky. However, he is concerned that inexperienced operators, motivated by money will take out groups too large to manage around these unpredictable animals. This is likely even more true with the recent regulations placed upon dolphin swimming tours, that has led to operators looking for other avenues to make cash. He fears it is not financially feasible for many of these companies to operate in the smaller groups necessary for the safety of the guests and respect to the sharks. Tours could lead to people getting bit and/or operations being shut down completely.
We appreciate Deron’s willingness to share his time and skills to further our understanding of pelagic sharks. His photos are truly captivating and allow us into a world few people ever enter. We admire his work and look forward to seeing what else he finds out there in the blue water.