A diver for nearly 35 years, photographer and conservationist Brian Skerry has since 1998 been under contract to National Geographic, where his gorgeous high-profile images bring attention to the issues that endanger our seas.
Q: When did you first know you had to raise your voice for conservation?
A: In the beginning, I was interested only in making beautiful images of animals or places in which I had an interest. Over time, however, I began to see degradation occurring in so many places. Where once I watched massive schools, I was seeing fewer fish, fewer sharks and dead corals. As a journalist, I felt a sense of duty and urgency to shed light on the problems threatening Earth’s oceans as well as making the celebratory photographs. I’m not sure that I can point to a single defining moment, but I can say that a scientific paper I read in the British journal Nature written by Ranson Myers and Boris Worm about the problems of over-fishing definitely was a wake up call for me. They wrote about how industrialized, commercial over-fishing has wiped out 90 percent of the large, predatory fish in the oceans including tuna, billfish and sharks. It was a call to action for me and I felt I had the ability to photograph things that would help people understand what was happening.
Q: You have a lot on your plate, shooting, speaking, producing books — what does a typical day in the life of Brian Skerry look like?
A: I spend up to nine months each year in the field, on assignment. While in the field, my days are usually quite long, often 18 hours. This can vary depending on the location, but I spend as much time as possible in the water trying to make pictures. I’m also dealing with the challenges that inevitably occur on location. Then there are the hours of downloading and backing-up images. When I am home, I am usually in my office, planning and researching for upcoming trips. I also spend a fair amount of time writing (especially if I’m working on a book project) and preparing new lectures. My core business is assignment photography, so this takes priority, but all the other components of my work require lots of time as well.
Q: You have described yourself as somewhat obsessed with sharks; which of your many shark encounters stands out most in your mind?
A: I do love sharks. Photographically speaking, they represent the perfect blend of grace and power. They move elegantly through the sea, yet exude a real dominance. I have had countless memorable shark experiences, but if I had to select one, I might choose my very first, with a Blue Shark. In the early 1980s I was with shark scientist Wes Pratt, off the coast of Rhode Island. We were inside a cage for hours, with no sightings. Late in the afternoon, a female Blue came along and I was so excited I thought I might explode. Without really thinking, I opened the cage door and swam out. This is pretty common today, but back then no one was going outside the cage. In fact, I vividly remember them telling me I was crazy. I swam towards the shark as she purposefully nosed her way through the slick, looking for morsels of chum. I made a few frames before she swam away. To this day, I can remember that feeling of elation. For days I was walking on air recalling this special experience; it was like I knew a secret that no one else knew. Needless to say, I was instantly addicted.
Q: What's your greatest achievement?
A: As far back as I can remember I wanted to produce work that made a difference. I wanted to reveal the spectacular beauty of the sea and peel back the mysteries that exist with underwater ecosystems. I hoped to inspire others and to motivate, educate and make people care. Thanks to the ease of communications today, I regularly receive messages from people around the globe, commenting on my work and how it has affected them. So I’d have to say this is my proudest achievement; hearing from people that my work has in some way moved them and has made a difference in their lives. My work has also helped move conservation legislation along as well, creating new laws in the U.S. and new marine reserves. Last year I received a call from the president of Chile asking to use one of my shark photographs in a presentation. Several months later, Chile banned shark finning. So I am also pleased that my work helps to achieve substantial conservation success as well.
Q: What's your biggest regret?
A: Well, I never want to complain about anything; things have worked out quite well. But I sometime wish I had pursued more academic avenues while in school. I studied photography in college and took courses in photojournalism, film, animation, television production and more. I also minored in geography, but wish I had pursued more biology and perhaps even continued on for a Ph.D. in ocean related sciences.
Q: Who are your SEA Heroes?
A: I have many heroes, in various disciplines. Some of my photographic heroes include folks like Luis Marden, Doug Allan, Rick Rosenthal and Howard Hall. In the marine conservation world, I greatly admire Sylvia Earle and Greg Stone for their vision and ability to effect change.
Q: How can ordinary divers make a difference?
A: I believe divers can serve a vital role in conservation by acting as ambassadors. In comparison to the worldwide population, divers are few in number. Yet our experiences tend to be of great interest to many people and our observations and knowledge are important. I think it’s especially valuable to communicate to family and friends what we have learned and what we have seen. We should celebrate the magnificence but also talk about the problems. As Margret Mead noted, we should never underestimate the power a small group of thoughtful people can have on the world. We can also make an effort to continue our “ocean education” by reading and talking to researchers. It is also important to make choices about the food we eat, the plastics we use and whom we elect to office.
Q: This year you are launching a new 5-year venture, the New England Ocean Odyssey, tell us a little bit about that.
A: I typically spend eight or nine months each year in the field working in locations around the world; from polar-regions to remote tropical reefs. Because of this schedule over the last decade and a half, I’ve not had time to dive much in my home waters of New England. But recently I formed a partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation to do about six weeks of assignment photography each year for the next five years in New England waters. I will still spend the majority of my time traveling for National Geographic magazine, shooting assignments worldwide, but for 40 days each year, I will dedicate my time to documenting the wildlife in my backyard seas. The goal is to show people how spectacular these ecosystems are and tell stories about the animals that live here. Ultimately, we hope to build a coalition for the conservation of key places in this region.
Galleries and more information about where you can see Skerry's photography are at www.brianskerry.com, for more information on his latest conservation project, please visit www.newenglandoceanodyssey.org
Each Sea Hero featured in Scuba Diving will receive an Oris Diver’s Date watch (worth $1,595). At the end of the year, a panel of judges will select one overall winner, who will receive a $5,000 cash award from oris to further his/her work.
The Sea Heroes Award is sponsored by Scuba Diving magazine and Oris Watches. Nominate a Sea Hero here.