“The picture is of two Southern Right Whales in the southern Antarctic of New Zealand, in a place called the Auckland Islands. It was one of those days when visibility wasn’t great, so I had the idea to drop down deeper and make a silhouette. This was a male and female, engaged in courtship. They were swimming together and rubbing against each other in this beautiful, dance-like way, even though they are these huge, 45-foot long creatures weighing 70 tons. I had to be very careful. Their tails could have swatted me like a fly. But they’re very aware of when anything else is in the water with them. I also had to be careful with my breathing because the bubbles would have messed the picture up. I had to hold my breath and be very careful as I moved in concert with these behemoths above me. I was all alone in icy-cold water, in a very remote corner of the world, hundreds of miles from any other human being, witnessing something very special.”
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 Creative Interview With Brian Skerry By Simon Worrall