Dive Your Heart Out
As professional underwater photographers for Florida Shark Diving, Janelle Van Ruiten and Tanner Mansell's job is to capture the majestic realm of the ocean’s most deadly predator.
Underwater photographers Janelle Van Ruiten and her fiancé Tanner Mansell arguably have some of the coolest jobs out there. They dive with sharks, capturing raw images of the ocean’s apex predator on camera. Read on to check out South’s Q&A with Van Ruiten.
Janelle Van Ruiten and Tanner Mansell are anything but surface level. In fact, they deep dive for a living. As professional underwater photographers for Florida Shark Diving, their job is to capture the majestic realm of the ocean’s most deadly predator. The images range from toothy and menacing to beautiful and curious. They coexist with apex predators—balancing loads of equipment—acting as conservationists behind the lens. By crossing over to the other side, they hope to show that a shark’s most vicious battle will not be waged in the water; but rather, by humans here on dry land.
“I became addicted to photographing marine life. I constantly push myself to the limits freediving, there are inherent risks involved, I am holding my breath and coexisting with apex predators, I am not at the top of the food chain and I am being as creative as possible to enjoy wild interactions while documenting and photographing such incredible experiences.” – Tanner Mansell
South’s Q&A with Janelle Van Ruiten:
South: How did you discover your love for photography? How did you get started shooting professionally?
Janelle Van Ruiten: My love for photography came naturally with my love for the ocean and diving. Being in the ocean everyday I have a unique opportunity to be able to share what I love with others in hope that my images will bring light to the beauty of the ocean and what will be lost if we don’t make a change.
S: Did you always want to be a marine photographer? What’s your connection with the ocean?
JVR: I have always loved the ocean for as long as I can remember because of the movie Free Willy. The movie made me fall in love with whales as a child and eventually grew into the ocean as a whole. I didn’t get into photography until I started diving more consistently as a job and a hobby.
S: What is it like photographing sharks? It looks terrifying!
JVR: Photographing sharks is a thrill. I love learning their behaviors and learning more about them everyday. Eventually you learn how to position yourself for a good shot and how each shark will act depending on their species.
S: How do you get those amazing images of sharks with their mouths open, teeth and all? Or some of the other amazing shots like the swarms of stingrays, manatees, and striped marlin hunting schools of fish?
JVR: The open mouth shots can be tricky but the more you photograph the sharks the more you learn behaviors and what to look for. Some open mouth shots are of sharks “yawning” or to align their jaw. Others are taken when the sharks are feeding. The shots of the Marlins, mobula rays, sea lions and the schools of fish are from a recent trip to Baja Tanner and I took! The manatees are here in the Florida springs.
S: What is unique about shooting underwater? What goes into it behind the scenes that we couldn’t know by just seeing the finished products?
JVR: Underwater photography is very unique because you lose a lot of light and color. since we are at the surface the first color you lose is red and the deeper you get the greener your photos are. So a lot of time goes into post editing and getting your colors back. Most of my photos are natural light but I do occasionally use a light at depth or in the late afternoon. There are also tons of particles in the water that have to be removed during post editing, this I would say is an underwater photographer’s biggest pet peeve and one of the more tedious parts of the editing process.
S: Will you and your fiancé Tanner get married underwater? Do you have any special plans?
JVR: Tanner and I will not be getting married underwater, however we have talked about it! We will be getting married overlooking the ocean in California in one of our favorite spots.
S: Are you both from Florida originally?
JVR: Tanner and I are not originally from Florida, we grew up in Northern California but have traveled all over the world diving.
S: Do you have to have special medical insurance?
JVR: We do have multiple health insurances including your standard health insurance and diving insurance.
S: What certifications do you have to undertake to become a safety diver?
JVR: To become a safety diver you must be a Divemaster or Freedive instructor for what I do. These certifications have training in EFR and rescue courses in case there was ever an emergency in the water. Also having knowledge of shark behavior and being comfortable overall in the water is very important.
S: What camera equipment do you shoot with? Have you lost any/gotten any eaten by a shark/had to replace anything?
JVR: I shoot with the Sony A7III in an Aquatica underwater housing and a Big Blue dive light. I have never lost any gear to sharks, sometimes sharks are curious of cameras due to the electrical pulse of the battery so you will see in some of my videos the sharks coming up and bumping their Ampullae of Lorenzini on their head into my camera.
S: How do you light the sharks? Isn’t it super dark underwater?
JVR: Luckily I use a Sony which does amazing in low light, usually I don’t need light but on our later afternoon trips occasionally I will use a dive light.
S: What is your favorite breed?
JVR: My favorite species of shark is the tiger shark. They have so much personality in their eyes, and their stripes are mesmerizing. They are also such intelligent and capable predators.
S: If you could tell people anything to get over sharks having a bad rap, what would it be?
JVR: Sharks aren’t interested in us, if you look at their evolution they have adapted over time to eat fish and certain prey. To them we are just another predator or potential threat. Sharks don’t like to take unnecessary risks, hence why we don’t see a lot of larger sharks on our dives and why there aren’t as many shark attacks as there could be. When sharks attack it is always a test bite, once they taste our blood they want nothing to do with us. In 2020 there were 10 unprovoked shark attack deaths, however humans kill nearly 100+ million sharks a year. We need sharks to maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem, and if we keep killing them at the rate we do we will lose a lot more than sharks.
S: How can you dive safely without cages like we see in the movies and on shark week?
JVR: Once you learn shark behavior by going out with credible companies, you learn behaviors to watch for and how to safely swim with sharks. For most shark species a cage is really not necessary, they know what we are and have no interest in us.
S: Is there anywhere you want to go on your dive bucket list?
JVR: There are so many places I would love to go, but my number one is always to swim with orcas in Norway and Tahiti for the humpback whale and tiger shark season. 🙂