Mobile Home, Japan, 2008

Japan’s Suruga Bay is a deep and narrow body of water that plunges downward more than eight thousand feet. Washed by cool water, nutrient-rich currents, these waters teem with diverse habitats and astonishing life. Diving here was like swimming through the pages of a storybook with each day bringing vastly different experiences. On one dive I would be deep within a forest of vibrant pink soft coral, where delicate schools of fish morphed into silver clouds above and yellow moray eels slithered below. A day later I would find myself one hundred and thirty feet beneath the waves swimming through an eerie garden of whip coral where fish hid in shadows and polyp-studded strands of coral fed in the dimly lit green water. With Mount Fuji ever present in the distance, I waded in from rocky beaches or somersaulted off the sides of boats, gliding over volcanic sands; each dive bringing something new, something fantastic.

Perhaps here more than anywhere else, I was struck by the fact that two vastly different worlds can coexist in the same place. On the shore of Osezaki one morning, outfitted in all my dive gear, I carefully walked into the sea, camera housing in my hands. Around me I watched dozens of people walking by, talking, laughing, eating and going about their daily routines. I saw cars and trucks driving by on roads, jets in the sky and boats on the water. Kneeling in shallow water, I pulled on my fins, then put my face in the water and looked around. Schools of little fish scattered as I swam past them, on my way into deeper water. I propelled myself over the flat bottom, eventually coming to a declining bank that descended into the haze. The little fish I saw upon entering the water gave way to a wonderland of creatures and I truly felt like Alice having entered the looking glass. Eels peered out from a rusty old sewing machine someone had thrown into the sea and stargazers looked skyward, their menacing grin seemingly etched in the mud. An exotic lionfish, with flashes of neon blue on its pectoral fins hunted over the bottom and I lingered to watch a lizardfish eating another fish it had recently caught, making a few frames, then moving on.

As the banking leveled off at a depth of about one hundred feet, I saw a soda can lying on the sand, its shiny exterior encrusted with marine growth. From inside the can I saw a flash of color and moved in for a better view. In a prone position, I crawled to within a few feet of the can. Materializing from the darkness inside, a tiny yellow goby stared at me with green eyes from his pop-top window. I inched closer and watched the fish disappeared and then reappeared not unlike the Cheshire Cat. I focused my lens on the fairy tale scene, thinking at any moment I might hear the goby speak. With my air supply running low and satisfied I had the picture, I steadily ascended towards shallow water and the sky, savoring these latest experiences and storing them safely in my bank of cool water memories.

Location: Honshu, Japan
Photograph Date: 2008
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200

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About the Photographer

Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry was a boy from a small, working-class town in Massachusetts, with a big dream: to explore the mystery and beauty of the oceans with a camera. Thirty years later, he is one of the top ocean photographers in the world, with a string of awards to his name, including a Peter Benchley Award For Excellence and a National Geographic Fellowship. He is actively involved with National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Initiative. He lives on Cape Cod, where his dream of being an ocean photographer began.

Q & A

You have been photographing the ocean for 30 years. What changes have you seen over that time?

I started diving in 1978 and in over 30 years I've seen a lot of changes, which are reflected in my work. When I first began diving, I was only interested in making beautiful pictures of things that interested me. But there’s been an evolution in my career because I’ve seen a lot of problems occurring in the world’s oceans. There’s been a tremendous amount of over-fishing. We’ve lost 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean: the sharks, the tuna, the billfish. I've seen the tremendous loss of habitat: mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass beds. I’ve seen pollution, plastics in the ocean. This downward degradation is tragic. The good news is that we are at a point in history where we realize the damage that we have collectively done to the sea and can turn that around. We’re creating more marine protected areas. We’re cognizant of our behaviors. We have a long way to go, but I am optimistic we're on the right track.

How can photography help save the world’s oceans?

Photography is perhaps the most powerful tool that conservation has because most people don’t have the privilege of spending a great deal of time in nature, especially not underwater. This is one of the reasons that I started doing more hard-hitting types of stories. I recognized a sense of urgency and responsibility to bring back powerful images that resonate with people. Human beings are quite visual creatures. We react emotionally to an image. And if we want to promote conservation in the ocean, we need both kinds of images: beautiful, celebratory images that show why we should care and what we want to protect and love, but also images that help people understand what the problems are… and what the solutions can be.

I work with the Pristine Seas Initiative. Their mission is to go to some of the last remaining beautiful places left in the ocean, bring attention to them through science and image-making, then build a constituency to get these places protected. It’s a noble cause and perfectly in alignment with what I have been doing in my career: bringing attention to places that matter to me and cry out for conservation.

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Brian Skerry By Simon Worrall

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