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IMAGES ©BRIAN SKERRY / brianskerry.


O cean Advocate

“There’s nothing as
frightening as seeing
firsthand what
mankind has done to
the oceans over just
the four last decades
I’ve been diving.”

Brian Skerry works to

conserve aquatic environments

By Robert Kiener


rian Skerry’s been there, done that. One of the world’s best known underwater photographers, Skerry is a longtime National Geographic
magazine contributor as well as an author, a lecturer, and the winner of a boatload of prestigious photography awards and accolades.
Perched on a stool in his coastal Maine office and studio, the 58-year-old quickly reels off a list of the challenges of his profession.
“Let’s see; you’re working in an alien—always cold—environment, you need life support equipment, and it can be dan-
gerous,” he says. His blue eyes light up, and without taking a pause he continues, “You have to get very close—within several
feet—to your subjects because the water is filled with particles and acts like a giant filter and reflects, refracts, and scatters light.
Water also removes colors and makes everything monochromatic the deeper you go. Also, because your camera has to go in a housing, you
cannot change lenses, film, or media cards underwater. You have to use whatever you jumped into the water with. For example, if I’m shooting
with a macro lens and a whale swims by, I’m out of luck.”
He smiles, takes a deep breath and adds, “My terrestrial counterparts may be able to sit in a camouflage blind and wait for a month for some
elusive animal to wander by, and they can then shoot a picture with a 600mm lens, but we underwater photographers have to get in the water,
get up close, and get our picture—and do all that within an hour. It’s a challenge.”


He pauses. “But what a chal- marker buoys above their heads.
lenge! That’s what I love about it. Still, they weren’t spotted.
There’s nothing like it!” “You go through a range or emo-
tions in a situation like that,” says
PERIL BELOW Skerry. “First, you laugh and think,
Dangerous. Skerry did mention Those idiots can’t see us. Then
that underwater photography can you get angry and think, What’s
be just that, but he’s not one to wrong with them? Can’t they just
dwell on the potential hazards of follow the drift and locate us?’’
the profession. Probe a bit more, As the dive boat became small-
and he’ll explain that he has had er and smaller in the distance,
some frightening moments dur- Skerry and his assistant hooked
ing his nearly four decades and themselves together by their
more than 10,000 hours of under- dive belts so they would drift to-
water photography. For example, gether. Eventually, they spotted
while shooting off the southwest- a rescue helicopter. But their
ern coast of Ireland for a National hearts sank when they realized
Geographic assignment, he and the rescuers couldn’t see them.
an assistant emerged from their After an hour or so of moving
dive to see they’d surfaced far ever farther into the cold Atlantic,
away from their dive boat. Skerry began thinking of the 4-
“We could see the boat, but be- week-old daughter he’d left behind
cause there was such a strong for this trip. “Dark thoughts began
current we couldn’t swim to it. popping into my head,” he says.
In fact, the current was sweeping Skerry and his companion
us out to sea,” he remembers. were two and a half hours adrift
Skerry and his assistant began when an Irish fishing boat cap-
yelling at the boat, but the crew tain, who had heard of the miss-
couldn’t hear them over the ing pair on his maritime radio,
noise of the engines. “Even worse,” spotted and rescued them. Since
says Skerry, “the sun was at our then, Skerry carries a two-way
back and there was a lot of glare radio, a GPS monitor, and strobe
and big swells, so that made it even lights when he dives.
harder for the crew to see us.” The “The afternoon off Ireland also
pair kept yelling but the powerful taught me a good lesson about
current continued to sweep them this profession,” says Skerry.
farther and farther out to sea. “Uncertainty is a given. So be
They inflated and waved 4-foot prepared and never give up.”
long, bright orange submersible Another close call: “I was doing


It was grim statistics like these been named one of National Geo- critical to conservation because Royal Geographic Society in Lon-
that compelled Skerry and other graphic magazine’s “50 Greatest it makes a difference. I am proud don, and at the World Economic
like-minded photographers to Photographs of All Time.” to call him a colleague, friend, Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
found the International League Writer Gregory Stone is a long- and fellow ocean advocate. The Despite his successes and acco-
of Conservation Photographers time collaborator with Skerry. planet needs more like him.” lades, Skerry is quick to explain,
in 2005. “I realized I had this “Brian has that rare ability to In addition to “Ocean Soul,” “Like an athlete I am only as good
unique opportunity, after I’d be- make pictures that interpret Skerry has published 10 oth- as my last game, or in my case,
come a contributor to National subjects in new ways—pictures er well-received books. He is my last assignment. Failure is
Geographic magazine, to alert their that show far more than simply an 11-time award winner in the not an option. I know that if I fail
audience of 50 million to the dif- where and what was happening, Wildlife Photographer of the to deliver the goods, I’m done.
ferent environmental factors that also including the true nature of Year competition and is the only So I always have to be prepared
are endangering our oceans,” the moment, the ethereal, almost photographer to win the Peter for inevitable problems such as
says Skerry. “There were articles spiritual, aspect of his subject,” Benchley Award for Excellence bad weather, poor visibility, or
about conservation on land, but Stone notes in Skerry’s book in Media. A frequent lecturer on the animals I hope to shoot not
there was very little about the “Ocean Soul.” photography, exploration, and turning up. It’s all part of the
need to save the oceans. I felt a Fellow photographer David conservation, Skerry has spoken challenge. But like I said, there’s
sense of urgency and a duty to Doubilet says, “Brian Skerry’s about the importance of pro- nothing like it!” •
change that.” Happily, the editors photography is many things: It tecting the oceans at the United
at National Geographic agreed, and is impactful, influential, and it is Nations General Assembly, the Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.
he began producing stories with
a heavy environmental slant.

The greatest challenge of conser-
vation photography, says Skerry,
is engaging the reader. To under-
stand the science behind a story,
he spends months researching
an article idea before submitting
it to his editors. However, while
another story for National Geo- it’ll come close enough for me to had mostly disappeared. “The it is easy to fill an article with
graphic about harp seals. I was capture an image. But sometimes more I traveled, the more I ex- information about the impor-
diving under the ice in Canada’s as they approach, my heart will plored the oceans, the more envi- tance of conservation, a photog-
Gulf of St. Lawrence and was so start to race and I’ll wonder what ronmental damage I came across,” rapher has to create images that
entranced by a big male harp seal I’ve gotten myself into.” says Skerry who landed his first resonate with people and also tell
that I was stalking him with my But the biggest underwater National Geographic assignment in a story. “Humans are very visual
camera. Before long, I realized scare Skerry’s ever had is man- 1998. Plastic pollution is every- creatures,” says Skerry, “and we
the ice above me had shifted, and made, he says. “There’s nothing where. Coral reefs are disappear- respond emotionally and viscer-
I couldn’t find my entry hole. It as frightening as seeing firsthand ing. Oceans are acidifying. The ally to powerful pictures.”
had closed up. That was scary. what mankind has done to the numbers are terrifying. Every He’s become world-famous
The water was 29 degrees, you oceans over just the four last de- year 18 billion pounds of plastic for his evocative, iconic images
only have the air on your back, cades I’ve been diving.” waste enter the world’s oceans. and explains, “What I am really
and if you panic and start breath- When Skerry started diving in In the past 30 years 50 percent of trying to do is capture the poetry
ing heavy, it’s all over.” He found the late 1970s he was bowled over the world’s coral reefs have died. that lives in the sea.” To illustrate
another exit hole just in time. by the colorful fish and coral he Thanks largely to overfishing, an article on the slaughter of
explored and eventually pho- 90 percent of the big fish, such sharks, he wanted to produce a
BECOMING A tographed. “I remember when as Atlantic salmon, tuna, halibut picture that would disprove the
CONSERVATIONIST I was a kid diving off the coasts and swordfish, have disappeared notion that sharks are villains.
Skerry has been attacked by a of Massachusetts and Maine I’d from the world’s oceans in just On a dive in Mexico’s Sea of Cor-
giant Humboldt squid, chased often see big, teeming schools half a century. More than 100 tez he stumbled across a bigeye
by a massive sperm whale, had of baby fish such as pollock, million sharks a year are killed, thresher shark that had just died
decompression sickness, and herring, and cod. Those huge many just for their fins. As the in a gill net. “It looked to me like
been “nipped” by various sharks. schools of fish thrilled me as I Washington Post has noted, “If we a crucifixion,” says Skerry, “so I
“When I see a shark out in the swam through them.” don’t allow for proper recovery, framed it that way” (page 79, top
blue void, I’m often praying that Two decades later those fish these fish risk total extinction.” right). The striking image has