whale shark and model in red dress A whale shark and a model help tell the story of our oceans with a different mood. (Photo: Kristian Schmidt)

Photographers Kristian Schmidt and Shawn Heinrichs have blended the genres of fashion and wildlife with unusual images of models posing underwater with whale sharks. The fresh take on the undersea scenes is intended to draw attention to a huge problem: shark finning.

Conservation photographers have worked for years to portray the devastating industry that revolves around shark finning, or the practice of catching sharks only to cut off their fins and abandon the rest of the carcass as waste. The industry has had untold consequences for shark species, many of which are now on the brink of extinction, and the ecosystems in which sharks play such a key role. However, the heart-wrenching images of row after row of fins drying on rooftops or the still-living bodies of sharks sinking to the ocean floor are just one way to tell the story. These photographers have come up with a different way, an otherworldly and compelling view that focuses viewers on the beauty of the living fish.

whale_shark_models_colorized Photo: Kristian Schmidt

Heinrichs, an environmental and underwater photographer, and Schmidt, a wildlife and fashion photographer, teamed up to create a whale shark fashion shoot, putting beautiful models in flowing costumes in the water with the endangered sharks. The images draw in the reader to focus on the whale shark as a gentle creature — one that is every bit as graceful and delicate as the women posing alongside.

whale_shark_models_duet A whale shark and model seem in sync. (Photo: Shawn Heinrichs)

The project revolves around the concept that people will protect what they care about. By combining these two seemingly different genres of imagery, the photographers created a different way to draw people in and to care about the species. The two pulled together a team of models, a stylist and a dive specialist, and worked with villagers from Oslob in southern Cebu, Philippines, where there is a thriving ecotourism trade for people visiting to see the world's largest fish. Heinrichs says on his Blue Sphere Media website:

"Just a two years ago in these very waters, divers discovered a live juvenile whale shark that had all its fins cut off,” said Heinrichs. “Though legally protected in the Philippines, poaching of whale sharks had continued because the shark fin traders enticed poor local fishermen to earn money from exploiting these vulnerable animals. Less than a decade prior, the local populations of whale sharks had been all but wiped out to satisfy demand for shark fins in China. Now finally, local communities have found a way to earn a living from whale shark tourism, and rather than targeting and killing them, they now are passionate about protecting them."

Heinrichs said the next phase of this project will put models alongside other charismatic marine wildlife.

whale_shark_models_sepia Photo: Kristian Schmidt

whale_shark_models_vertical Photo: Shawn Heinrichs

whale_shark_models_pair A model with two whale sharks. (Photo: Shawn Heinrichs)

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Whale sharks and models strike a pose
Environmental and fashion photographers approach shark finning problem from a different angle, with gorgeous results.