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1/200 - Behind the Image

Updated: Sep 16, 2019

Divine Feminine

1/200 Sharks

Common name: Scalloped Hammerhead

Scientific name: Sphyrna lewini

Size: Average Size at sexual maturity 1.4-4.3m

Weight: Up to approx. 150kg

Lifespan: Up to 35years

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered

Diet: Favourite foods are Squid and stingrays; also sardines, barracuda, parrotfish, ray-finned fish and sometimes small blacktip reef sharks

Divine Feminine was inspired by my time spent diving with Scalloped Hammerheads in Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Of all shark species, Scalloped Hammerheads have some of the largest brains in comparison to their body weight. During the day they school together at Cocos island’s seamounts by the hundreds, not to hunt but to socialise. By night, they become solitary hunters. I remember one of my first hammerhead dives in Cocos Island was at ‘Manuelita Outside’ where there are three very distinct cleaning stations and so there is a thriving hotspot with a near-constant flow of sharks.

‘Manuelita Outside’ is one of the favourite locations at Cocos Island and is known for epic shark dives. Here I dived into the murky blue grey water where I hit a rocky volcanic wall covered in sea urchins, algae, barnacles and some hard corals. This dive had a crazy surge, the strongest I had experienced, and the swell pushed you up and down around 3-5 metres. In Cocos, you tend to find the wildest conditions bring the most life. At first the visibility was poor but as we slowly drifted around the craggy walls to shelter from the surge, the water started to clear and we settled down. I wedged my fins into some rocks to keep myself stable and the wait for hammerheads began. Scalloped Hammerheads are a very shy species, easily spooked compared to other sharks. If you want them to come close, keep your dive group in a tight formation, calm your breathing and don’t make any sudden movements. 5 or so minutes passed and out of the murky cobalt waters the mysterious and elegant hammerheads appeared, swimming in a distinct formation - a scene I had only experienced in documentaries and photos. I hovered speechless, eyes wide open in awe at the magical event happening in front of me, a school of 50 Hammerheads, all covered in mating scars, and all ready for a well deserved clean. Before I could blink, 3 cruised over my head, and suddenly I was surrounded. The contrast between the yellow and red cleaning fish, the grey of the sharks and the blue water behind was beautiful and something only your memory can truly capture.

A fascinating recurring theme you will witness in Cocos Island are the amazing symbiotic relationships. Every dive is centred around cleaning stations situated at 25-30 meters depth. From here you will hide behind the volcanic rocks, staying as quiet as possible to encourage shy sharks to head to towards the rock formations. Here they get cleaned by fish like Wrasses, Barberfish and King Angelfish which congregate on rocky outcrops. The Hammerheads then slow down and give a very distinct signal by flashing their belly to the Cleaner Fish. The Cleaner Fish then know to emerge and begin grooming the shark. Suddenly a monochrome world of blues and greys bursts to life with colour. These small fish show absolutely no fear of the sharks when the predators are in ‘cleaning mode’. This truly is a symbiotic relationship where sharks get rid of parasites while the cleaner fish get a delicious meal. It’s something so special to witness.

Cocos Island is best known for the massive schools of Scalloped Hammerhead sharks that congregate around the seamounts, all swimming in the same direction (usually against the current). Witnessing hundreds of these powerful bodies moving gracefully and effortlessly in the expanse of the ocean is a transcendent experience that you really have to see to believe. Normally animals form groups with the goal of finding protection in numbers. However, Scalloped Hammerheads have very few natural predators. Therefore, safety in numbers is not the school’s main purpose. Adding another twist to this mystery, male Hammerheads are rarely seen schooling. Experts estimate that up to 90% of schooling Hammerheads at Cocos Island are female. Scientists have also pinpointed these schools to be a part of a mating ritual, with the larger dominant and more desirable females forming the heart of the school, with a few males swimming alongside trying to woo the largest female.

The mating process for sharks is aggressive and brutal, with the male shark biting the female in the process and on some occasion accidently killing the female. Mating scars can be seen all over the scalloped hammerheads body in Cocos Island and are a good tell-tale sign that you are looking at a female. Because of this aggressive biting behaviour from the males, females over time have evolved thicker skin to help protect themselves during this traumatic event.

Mating scars

But what seems like a vicious ‘rape scene’ for the females has a silver lining: they have evolved a very extraordinary organ called an Oviducal Gland, which is the hammerheads equivalent to ‘family planning’. This gland is pretty remarkable allowing the females to store up to 3 different males sperm for use at a later date, meaning she doesn’t get pregnant at the moment of conception. The female shark can then decide when the best time would be to have a pregnancy, this ability allows her to find a place with a sufficient amount of food to help grow her young as well as improving her offspring’s survival rates. The females of Cocos Island are known to migrate to the coast of Costa Rica to give birth, the most popular places being the Golfo Dulce and Nicoya Penninsula. These breading grounds are perfect for new-born and juvenile Hammerheads as the mangroves provide a sheltered environment to grow in as well as a place to learn how to be a badass apex predator. These mangroves also have murky waters allowing the Hammerheads to move silently through the water unseen by bigger predators.

Cocos Island from the surface after an epic Sharky dive.

I have tried to capture the true nature of these majestic creatures in my own diving memories to create the painting ‘Divine Feminine’. I have illustrated a scene of pure magic and female energy, which asks the viewer to imagine being one of the sharks in the Hammerhead orchestra. The sharks swim in an energetic trance as they move through the nutrient rich Pacific Ocean. Cocos Island is one of the few places on earth that you can witness this natural event. I have named this painting ‘Divine Feminine’ to celebrate female sharks in all their size and wonder. They have evolved to be bigger and better than the male sharks. And their ability to school en masse for pleasure and not for safety to me shows an intelligence we have only just begun to explore. It was hard for me to imagine that this species is endangered whilst diving in the abundant waters of Cocos Island. A World Heritage Site was founded here in 1978 and encompasses a marine zone of nearly 2,000 km2 around the wild underwater volcanic cliffs of Cocos. In 2009 Cocos Island was declared one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature which has helped boost the importance of keeping these waters free of illegal fishing. Whilst these Marine Parks are vital for eco tourism and the protection of sharks, unfortunately these marine parks are only a pin prick in the vast expanse of the ocean. As soon as the sharks leave this protected ‘safe zone’ they are exposed to the horror of commercial fishing, bycatch and the shark fin trade.

Sadly, the first time I saw a Scalloped Hammerhead was not in the ocean but dead on the dirty bloody floor of a fish market in Indonesia. It was being sold for its fins with the flesh, which is generally polluted with heavy metals and other toxins, sold to the local community, sadly to the poorest sector of society. What I saw here was the poorest getting poorer and the richest getting richer, a cycle that seems almost impossible to break. Saving sharks isn’t just an ocean emergency but a humanitarian issue and one that fuels my 200 Sharks Project.

Photo taken at the fish market, Indonesia

I’m also proud to be a part of Project Hiu. 10% of profits from the ‘Divine Feminine’ prints sold goes towards Project Hiu and the ocean mural project in the local shark fishing community. In March 2019 I went along with Madison (Instagram: Shark Girl Madison) to meet the fisherman and their loving community. After spending time with the fisherman and their families I realised we have been pointing fingers at the wrong people and use hate when it is easiest for us. Going to the fish market after spending time with the fisherman on their boats gave me a new perspective on the whole situation. These people are not evil shark killing humans, they are just like you and I. With families, passions and unfortunately a livelihood that involves danger not to just themselves but to a species. For them this is their only source of income but Madison has started to implement another source of income for the fisherman. Their trade isn’t just unsustainable for the sharks but also for their and their children’s futures. On her Project Hiu trips she pays the fisherman for each day of the trip so they don’t need to go out and fish. Through ecotourism she is starting to show the community that these animals are worth more alive than dead. It’s a slow process, but this is how you save sharks starting with the people at the bottom of the ladder. Purchasing a ‘Divine Feminine’ Print not only helps continue my 200 Sharks Project but also helps support the amazing work of Project Hiu.

Photo taken at the shark fishing village's local school.

I hope you enjoyed the first ‘Behind the image’ blog post. I will be posting the story behind ‘Luna’ shortly. Here I will be taking you to Komodo National Park, a place full of rich diversity, corals, marine life and the majestic Manta Ray.

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