American Brian Skerry is one of National Geographic‘s most seasoned explorers and he has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater capturing some of the ocean’s most elusive inhabitants. We caught up with Brian in the lead-up to his visit to Singapore
Which came first for you: photography or diving?
Diving. From a very young age, I was very interested in being an explorer – and particularly an explorer of the sea. That’s what I dreamed about. I was able to become a certified scuba diver at 15, and it was about a year later that I attended a diving conference in Boston and saw underwater photographers and filmmakers presenting their work. At that moment, I had what you could call an epiphany and I realised it was what I wanted to; I would be an explorer but I would do it under the water, with a camera – I would tell stories about the sea.
What’s been the most memorable experience in your underwater photography career?
I’ve had so many. Truly, I’ve been diving for about 38 years, and working for National Geographic for about 18 years, and there have just been so many memorable encounters. One that certainly tops the list, though, was an encounter with southern right whales in the Subantarctic of New Zealand, in a place called the Auckland Islands. I was doing a story for National Geographic about right whales and comparing the most endangered of these animals, the North Atlantic right whales, which live in North America, with their cousins, the Southern right whales, which are also endangered but are doing a bit better because they tend to be further from human industrialisation. I decided to go to the remote part of the planet to try to photograph a newly discovered population of Southern right whales; these animals had never seen humans underwater before. It was a very speculative trip; I didn’t know if the visibility would be good, if the animals would even be there, or if I could get pictures of them. I went down there in the Austral winter, so the weather wasn’t the greatest, but every time I dived I had these giant whales – 15 metres long, 70 tons in weight – coming up and just spending time with me. They were clearly curious and choosing to be with me and allowing me into their world. It was by far one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had.
Tell us something about a marine creature that might surprise people to learn.
There are so many things that people might be surprised about, but the first thing that pops into my mind is in relation to the North Atlantic bluefin tuna – a subject I photographed recently and did a story on, which was published in 2014. Not many people think about fish as being these big predators, but that’s what a bluefin tuna is. And unlike almost every animal I’m aware of on the land or in the ocean, the bluefin tuna continues to grow for its entire life. If we weren’t so efficient at catching them – and we are – you might have 30-year-old tuna out there that weigh over a ton! But they don’t get that big now because there are too many fleets chasing them down. Still, I’ve been in the water with ones weighing 1,000 pounds or even 1,200 pounds – 500 or 600kg; they are amazingly big animals. Not only that, but they cross the entire ocean in the course of the a year, and there’s nothing on land – no grizzly bear or lion or wolf – that can travel that far. These fish are far more extraordinary than we might think. A bluefin tuna can generate heat in its body so it’s essentially a warm-blooded fish, and it swim tens of thousands of miles in a year, and continues to grow for its entire life – far from your average little goldfish!
What are some of the special skills required to take the kind of epic shots you’ve taken under the sea?
Obviously, you have to be a very experienced diver or ocean person. I’ve spent my whole life diving in the ocean and diving in difficult conditions – cold water, temperate water, under ice, in shipwrecks – to perfect my skills. So the diving part comes as second nature. You also have to be a good photographer and understand what makes a good photograph – particularly the type of photojournalistic image that would work for a magazine like National Geographic, a story-telling image. You have to know the difference between taking a picture and making a picture. What do you want the photo to achieve? You have to think about the light, the location of the animal, its gestures, all those things, so that you can capitalise on the moment. Being a good diver, being good in the water, and understanding the elements of photography – all those are essential. You also have to be very patient. Wildlife photography rarely happens the moment you go out into the field. It sometimes takes weeks or even months for things to come together. You have to know how boats work, about ocean currents, about tides, getting the best visibility, about marine biology, the behaviour of certain animals. Bringing all those things together can result in great images.
What’s your favourite body of water and why?
There are so many places I love, from the great corals in Fiji to the sharks in the Bahamas. But broadly I would say the Pacific Ocean tends to interest me a little more than most. It’s the oldest ocean on our planet, and there is a greater number of species in the Pacific than any other ocean. Specifically, I’m drawn to countries like New Zealand; aside from the right whale encounter, I’ve had some great experiences there. You can find some temperate waters in the Pacific where there’s an enormous amount of nutrients, and where you can find everything from sharks to beautiful invertebrates. These temperate waters interest me greatly.
What’s your personal take on smartphones, apps and so on – are they a good thing or a bad thing for photography?
Any tool that allows people to make photographs easily is a good thing. I’m not so hung up on technology, though I do have to be aware of it and use it whenever I can to tell my stories, and to make images. I’m always a little bit wary of when we start manipulating photos to the point where they’re not real, not true; and that’s okay too, so long as we divulge that information, for example in a caption. But smartphones and small cameras are great; they’ve allowed people to make pictures in all kinds of situations without the limitations of 36 frames on a roll of film, or having to carry a big piece of equipment around. I think any technology that allows folks to tell interesting stories about our planet and daily life is a good thing.
What’s the most important message to get across with respect to the current and future health of the oceans?
The most important message is that the ocean is not too big to fail. I’m taking a quote from my friend and marine biologist Sylvia Earle there, but for a long time people have had a belief that the oceans are so vast and filled with bounty that we can take and take and take, and it’ll be okay. Well, it’s not. We have over 7 billion people on the planet, we’re dumping trash and plastic, chemicals, we’re removing stuff from the ocean – minerals and oil; we’re taking fish at alarming rates – 90% of the big fish in the ocean have disappeared over the last 50 or 60 years because of commercial industrialised over-fishing. We can’t continue to do those things. The ocean is vital to our existence. The very oxygen we breathe comes from the sea. We can’t continue to treat it like a dump. We need to cherish the ocean and preserve it, we need to protect big parts of it so it can replenish. It will take care of us, but we have to treat it with respect and be aware that every action we take can have serious consequences on the health of the sea and of our planet.
What can audiences expect from your live show?
To be taken on a grand adventure. What I do with these presentations, and specifically the one I’ll be doing in Singapore, is introducing people to my work and I do that by talking about the kinds of things I think about when going into the field. What is the thought process; what am I hoping to achieve; and what kind of pictures am I trying to make? I provide that context, and I set the stage by explaining what a wildlife photographer or a photojournalist does. And then I take the audience into the ocean with me, and around the world, and I introduce them to this fascinating cast of creatures, from sharks and whales to dolphins and seals. I talk about the personality of these animals, the challenges of getting up close to them, the rewards of being patient. And of course the images help to really put that in perspective. I also talk about the problems occurring in the ocean. There’s been an evolution in my career; I’ve seen the need to look at the darker side of what’s going on under the water. But I end with a great message of hope – I talk about the ocean’s resilience, and how if we are good custodians and look after the ocean, it will take care of us. Finally, I encourage people to get out themselves and explore. It’s a fun show, but hopefully an enlightening message too.