Underwater animals have to let you get very close, because we can’t use telephoto lenses. Off the Auckland Islands south of New Zealand, I went to photograph a newly discovered southern right whale population, cooperation wasn’t a problem: The scientist I was with believed that they’d never seen a human before, so they were very curious. This particular whale ended up spending about two hours with us. It was like something out of a dream.
I’ve been diving for about 30 years, and I can honestly say that I’ve had some amazing encounters with sharks, squids, and other whales. But the encounter with the right whales in the Auckland Islands was probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It was just that amazing.
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