National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry has spent his 38-year career exploring and capturing breathtaking images of the wonders of Earth’s vast oceans. He has logged over 10,000 hours underwater and his work was selected as part of National Geographic magazine’s “50 Greatest Photographs” series. Shortly before his National Geographic Live appearance at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Skerry joined Ship to Shore Productions at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel for a discussion of his incredible work. As a sponsor of the series and partner of National Geographic Live, CAA is hosting Skerry at the hotel and will welcome more Nat Geo explorers in the coming months. Skerry will appear at the Goodman again on December 8th. Tickets are available at GoodmanTheatre.org/NatGeo.
Interview by Michael Mellini
Michael Mellini: Oceans are almost like a completely different world compared to what we experience on land. In what ways do you find oceans are most different and similar from our world above ground?
Brian Skerry: It really is a completely different world in the sense that you’re in a very alien environment for humans. Everything is in motion. I describe the ocean as a giant kaleidoscope where nothing is the same twice. It’s full of constant movement, color and light. The animals I’ve encountered have personalities just like the animals on land. It’s hard for people to get their head around the concept of fish having personalities, but they’re just like dogs. If you have 10 golden retrievers, they may all have similar characteristics, but they have their own traits and that’s the same for sharks, seals, and whales. There’s a life force that exudes from animals whether they’re in the sea or on land, and that’s what I’m looking to show in my photography.
MM: As an underwater photographer, you don’t quite have the luxury of setting up shoots the way a photographer would in a studio. Are you able to plan how your images will turn out, or are you simply at the mercy of the unpredictability of nature?
BS: I always do as much research ahead of time as possible. Before I even propose a story to National Geographic I will research the topic for more than a year. During that time I’m talking to scientists and other people who have had experience with that topic to learn things like the best time of year to visit an area, how close to the animals I will be able to get, what behaviors I might encounter and so on. You have to be lucky in photography, but a lot of that luck comes with knowing what might happen and being ready for it. All you can do in underwater photography is expect the unexpected. Conditions are highly variable. Visibility is going to be different day to day, hour to hour. I often stick my leg out and take a picture of my fin just to test the exposure, so if an animal swims by I’ll be ready. You don’t often get a second chance to get the photograph you want down there.
MM: Our oceans are greatly suffering from a variety of environmental damage. How are you using your photography to bring attention to these issues?
BS: There’s been an evolution in my work in that I started out wanting to just take pretty pictures, but I’ve seen a lot of problems occurring in our oceans, and a lot this stuff isn’t on people’s radars. Unless you’re diving on a regular basis, you wouldn’t necessarily know these problems exist. As a journalist I feel a sense of responsibility to tell these stories. These aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable stories to cover, but they’re the necessary ones. We need a more complete picture of what’s happening to the oceans in an effort to do some good and move the dial toward conservation. I did a story on harp seals, an arctic animal losing the sea ice they’re dependent on to have their pups. There were some recent years when their mortality rate increased to 100% of pups because ice hasn’t been solid enough for the mothers to have a stable platform to raise their young. I’ve looked at the global overfishing crisis; we’ve removed about 90% of the big fish in the ocean over the last 60 years because of industrialized commercial overfishing. There are 100 million sharks killed every year and these are apex predators that play a vital role in the health of the ecosystem. We can’t remove predators at that rate and expect everything to be ok. My hope is readers will come away with a more informed view of the ocean. I would love nothing more to take beautiful pictures, and that’s still critically important as well, but we need to see why we should care. We need to know the darker side or else these problems won’t get fixed.
MM: Do you think this damage is reversible?
BS: The first step is admitting there is a problem and then finding solutions. Whenever we do stories like these, we try to find solutions as well. I remain optimistic and hopeful. There’s been severe damage; we’ve lost 50% of the world’s coral reefs. But on the bright side we recognize the problems now, so we can take steps to create more marine protected areas, regulate fisheries, and curb ocean acidification. I don’t know if that will happen or happen quickly enough, but many of these things are within our power to address. Any effort can and will show some measure of success. I’ve personally seen the resilience of the ocean in places that have been protected. There is still time and hope, but the clock is ticking and if we don’t act quickly we’ll lose that window of opportunity.
MM: On a less severe note, if you could be any kind of aquatic animal what would you choose to be and why?
BS: I would be an orca. I did a cover story for National Geographic in May about dolphin intelligence and photographed five species of dolphins including the orca. They are the biggest and smartest of all dolphins. They are just so aware, so cognitive, that we don’t even know their full capabilities. They’re very social and really have no enemy in the ocean. They reign supreme and look like they have a lot of fun doing it.
MM: Your work has brought you all over the world. Where are a few places you think travel enthusiasts must visit in their lifetimes?
BS: New Zealand would be on the top of my list. I’ve done four stories there and the country has a very outdoorsy ethic. There’s lots of hiking, snorkeling, and surfing, and they have a pretty good conservation ethic as well. They want to protect their environment. The same can be said for Australia. I love so many places here in the United States as well. I come from New England and love visiting the gulf of Maine, as well as the Canadian Maritimes, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and Prince Edwards Island. As a diver, one of the best places I’ve ever explored are the kelp forests of California. If you like tropical diving, the Bahamas are great for seeing sharks and Fiji has beautiful coral reefs. There’s no shortage of places to go, it’s just a question of time and money!
Brian Skerry Photo Credit: Zachary James Johnston