As he waded in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, watching his model as she gasped for breath in between takes, Tyler Stableford had one thought going through his mind: “I just bit off more than I can chew.”

The award-winning adventure photographer had flown to Cancun, Mexico with his family,  and crew to shoot his dream personal project— a woman gracefully dancing underwater amongst whale sharks.

“I think connecting a human being in a momentary dance to such an exotic creature in an exotic location is a way to actually experience the fluid connections between humans and animals,” he said. “It also ties in my belief of our connection to everything in this world. I wanted to try to bring that to life in a series of images and moments captured in time.”

In order to achieve Tyler’s artistic vision, the model, a former competitive swimmer, had to powerfully swim out to the sharks and then plunge herself deep into the water underneath them, all before she could start posing. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, she had to do it without scuba or snorkel gear.

Meanwhile, Tyler was challenged with positioning himself behind the shark’s fin with his equipment—a Canon 5D Mark III with a 14 mm lens and AquaTech housing. The shark’s quick, erratic movements coupled with the backwash created by their tails made it nearly impossible to line up the model and the shark in the frame simultaneously. By the time both Tyler and the model finally got in position, he only had a few seconds to capture a shot before their lungs reached capacity.

“Our test day was really quite sobering,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to pull off the shoot, not even one shot.”

On the actual shoot day, they fortunately encountered a bit of luck. Tyler and his co-director, Kate Rolston, captured eight different occurrences where everything aligned. “I truly believe there was a lot of magic and harmony that came together,” Tyler said. “We gave it every single ounce of energy, planning and focus that we could for a solid five hours in the water.”

The result of their hard work is a hauntingly beautiful series of images. Even more impressive is that the photographs are all of real moments—neither the shark’s nor the model’s position were manipulated in editing.

“The project really came out better than I envisioned,” he said. “We were driven to give it absolutely everything within our limits both physically and artistically. It was a really wonderful process to see what I could do and open myself up to a purely personal fine art project. It surprised me the high level of artistry I, or really anyone, can create just by committing to a large, risky process.”

 

Update: You can now buy these images as framed prints for your walls. Explore more at Photos.com by Getty Images.

 

For more of Tyler’s experience shooting with the whale sharks, watch his behind-the-scenes video: