Image credit: Brian Skerry
The ocean fascinated underwater photographer Brian Skerry from an early age. Equipped with neverending inquisitiveness for what’s beneath the ocean, a young Skerry would spend his days in the reverie derived from Jacques Cousteau’s inspirational documentaries and National Geographic’s compelling stories. But to Skerry, these were not just big childhood dreams. Fuelled by his drive to become an explorer, Skerry slowly journeyed into this magical ocean world.
Today, the energetic photographer is acclaimed worldwide for his ability to weave powerful stories that not only celebrate the beauty and mystery of the ocean, but also raise awareness about ocean sustainability and conservationist issues.
Skerry has been on nearly 10,000 dives throughout his career, visiting dive sites around the world from the United States to New Zealand. Since 1998, he has been a contract photographer for National Geographic, covering a wide range of stories, and in 2014 named a National Geographic Photography Fellow.
In Singapore for the 2016 edition of National Geographic Live!, Skerry shared with series sponsor Quotient TravelPlanner his passion for large predators such as sharks and his drive to bring attention to the existing environmental problems.
Quotient: Hi Brian. Tell us a little about how you got into the field of underwater photography?
Skerry: I got into photography because I was a diver first. From a very young age, I remember wanting to be an ocean explorer. I grew up near Boston and my parents would take me to the beach constantly. From the time I was a very young boy, I was fascinated with the ocean and I would watch Cousteau documentaries, read National Geographic and dream about exploring the ocean. When I was about 15, I started scuba diving and maybe one year after that, I attended a diving conference in Boston where I saw photographers and filmmakers presenting their work and had an epiphany. I realised that I would love to explore the sea with a camera so I bought an old underwater camera and eventually went to university to study photography and filmmaking. From then on, it was a slow process.
What was your most frightening underwater assignment?
Well, they’re all frightening because if you don’t come back with the pictures, you won’t get another assignment! Jokes aside, I’ve worked with many potentially dangerous animals but I think the most frightening things for me were mistakes that were made either by me or people I was working with that led to pretty frightening moments. I was lost under Arctic ice very briefly when I was doing a story on harp seals in the Canadian Arctic. You would go through cracks in eight metres thick ice and it’s always moving so it was all closed while I was underneath and I had to find another way out.
Another time I was doing a story off the coast of Ireland and I’ve surfaced in an area where the current was very strong and the dive boat didn’t hear me as the engine was running and I got swept out to sea and drifted for two and a half hours before I was eventually picked up by a fishing boat. Things like these are moments that become dangerous and frightening but it’s more about human error.
What about the marine life itself? Did you have any dangerous encounters?
I’ve done thousands of dives with sharks. I have four new stories coming out on sharks. Of all those thousands of dives, I only had three or four where I was really scared about the sharks. I had an incident in the Southern Line Islands in the South Pacific – a very remote, uninhabited place — where I was chased out of the water by 60 or 70 grey reef sharks. It was crazy. They’re normally very polite!
What’s your favourite diving destination, and why?
It’s very difficult because there are so many great places for different things. If I want to see beautiful corals, I’ll go to Fiji. One place that I’ve had great success and had gone back several times for different stories is New Zealand. I’ve had really wonderful experiences in New Zealand. I did a story on protected marine reserves and got to visit many parts of New Zealand: tip of the South Island, top of the North Island. Each place was very different and interesting and because of their conservation effort – they’ve been really good with ocean conservation – these places are very healthy. I often say that it’s one of my favourite places. There are only 4 million people on the entire country and they have pretty good wine too!
How about your favourite place that doesn’t involve diving?
My last holiday was in 1993 in the Grand Canyon. I’ve been working ever since but if I could choose a place to go to that’s not near the ocean, I’d like to go to Himalayas to meditate… a place where it’s just quiet. I’ve read books such as Snow Leopard and other books about hiking in that part of the world and I’d enjoy that. I enjoy being out in the woods and having some solitude.
What’s your favourite subject to photograph and why?
I do love so many things. For me it’s always about the story, but if I had to pick certain subjects, I’d say sharks and that’s for two reasons. As a photographer, sharks sort of represent this beautiful blend of grace and power. They are very strong and confident and yet they move exquisitely through the water. Photographically, you never get tired of them as they are so elegant and beautiful.
But I also love to photograph sharks because they are in real trouble. Every single year, over 100 million sharks are killed. That’s a huge number. And when you think about how valuable the ocean is to our own existence is – every other breath that you and I take right now comes from the sea. More than 50% comes from the ocean and you realise how important predators are to the health of an ecosystem you begin to realise that killing 100 million sharks won’t help.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about marine life, as well as photographing them?
A misconception that many people have is that there’s an abundance of marine life in the world. For a very long time, the ocean has been thought of as endless and having endless bounty and the truth is we’ve taken most of that. We have overfished the oceans tremendously. The misconception is that people might think we can keep doing this forever and it’s going to be okay.
From a wildlife photography standpoint, I think there is a misconception that many animals in the ocean are dangerous… so many people have told me that they’re afraid to go into the sea because something is going to eat or bite them. In fact, I think it’s important to recognise that even when you’re working with predators such as sharks, we often have to use bait to attract them. It’s one of the only animals in the ocean that you’ll ever do that with because if you don’t have bait or food or scent, the shark will never come. You can do that with wild sharks, big predators, tiger sharks, and you can do it reasonably safely. There is no other predator on land that you would do that with. You wouldn’t go to Africa and step outside the vehicle and lie on the ground and take a picture because you know it wouldn’t be safe.
Ocean sustainability and conservationist issues have always played an important role in your work. How are your photos bringing attention to these issues?
Human beings are very visual creatures. We react viscerally to a photograph in a way that words alone won’t. Since the invention of photography I think that every important event that mankind has recorded is remembered through a still frame whether it was something positive or negative; some historical examples are man landing on the moon, Tiananmen Square, Kennedy’s assassination or wartime – whatever it is, we remember those moments as still frames. As a photographer, I have a sense of responsibility and urgency to make pictures that will resonate with people. We have to make celebratory and beautiful photographs to show what’s in the ocean and in nature and we also have to show the bad pictures: a shark in a net or bycatch from a fishing boat.
These powerful pictures can change behaviours and, as a journalist, it’s also important to be able to offer solutions. When I did a story on the global fish crisis, it was important to show wildlife being harvested as we don’t often think of fish as wildlife. I wanted to show solutions so I showed marine reserves, the value of protecting places in the ocean. I showed aquaculture as a way of giving wild fish a prey by raising farmed fish. You have to show the beautiful things but you also have the show the problems and offer solutions when you can.
You’ve had assignments all over the world. What are some of the places that are changing environmentally that you’d recommend to nature enthusiasts?
Most definitely coral reefs are changing drastically. It’s estimated that right now on planet earth we have lost at least 50% of the world’s coral reefs. Almost anywhere you go, if you had been there 10 or 20 years ago and went back today, you’d see a drastic change. The reefs are dead, they are bleached, overfished, stressed and don’t look like anything that they used to. So, to find some of the last remaining pristine jewels on the planet, you’d have to go to some really remote places. Any coastal ecosystem is probably stressed because of anthropogenic stress, pollution and overfishing. It’s hard to find healthy places these days because so much damage has been already done.