A wild conversation with National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry
First, let it be known that everybody loves Brian Skerry. When we not-so-secretly leaked an announcement about this interview on social media, many OMGs and “wow” emojis followed, including a few messages of “Tell Brian I love him!!!!” and “You’re so lucky! I love his work!” Some of you may remember his visit to The Straz a few years ago, when he delivered what some audience members proclaimed was “the best talk I have ever heard in my life. I’m not even kidding.”
Brian merits many exclamation marks, which you, too, will understand when you come to his next presentation here in January to kick off our National Geographic Live series.
(You will be delighted to know that the feeling is mutual. “I love Tampa,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite places. I can’t wait to get back.”)
Brian is the best kind of nature photographer — his technical skill matches an artistic sensibility; but, what really nabs people’s loyalty with Brian’s work is how unselfconsciously smitten he is with wild creatures. Brian is deep, and his art is deep. His images poke at that sleeping giant buried in the overburdened soul of indoor-dwelling workers: we want that primordial reminder that we are alive on this planet and we belong here with these other magnificent creatures. This is our place; this is our home. We forget that we live, breathe and move as part of the perfect miracle of life on Earth.
Brian’s photos stir the giant. Our connection to the planet crackles with awe. That’s the gift of a little bit of time with Brian Skerry — an awakening. Here are the highlights of our illuminating conversation with this incredibly cool person who is strangely compelled to put his body alongside enormous and often toothy marine life.
CITA: You’re obsessed with sharks. How did you get this way?
BRIAN: Sharks and their protection are near and dear to my heart. I was intrigued because they were predators — the same way most people are intrigued by lions, grizzly bears, any big predator that can eat us. I’m not sure if I remember my earliest moments. You know, I started SCUBA in 1977, a few years after Jaws. I was in the movie theater with everybody else when it opened — June 18, 1975, I think (note: we checked—June 20, 1975—impressive recall for the shark enthusiast). I watched the movie, and I may be one of the very few people who saw that film and wanted to go in the water afterwards. Some people couldn’t even get in the bathtub for a year, but I wanted to be Matt Hooper [the Richard Dreyfuss character]. I wanted a life on boats, in the ocean, interacting with sharks.
I live in a little New England town outside of Boston, so I never thought I would have much of a chance to interact with sharks. I met a shark biologist, Wes Pratt, who worked for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and works for MOTE now [a marine lab in Sarasota]. He’s so wonderful, charismatic — a real life Matt Hooper — and he would go on shark cage trips off the coast of Rhode Island. I asked if he would take me, this is around 1982, and so I got to go out there in a cage that Wes built himself. Bright yellow. We chummed the water, and I was in the cage in the late afternoon when I saw my first shark emerge in the green, murky water. I mean, I was so compelled to be near this animal. I had my camera and wanted a picture, so I opened the door of the cage and swam out.
I had an overload of emotions. My heart was racing, of course, as I was thinking “what if she comes after me?” but I was also hypnotized by her. Her grace of movement. She was aware of me but paid me no mind. I was hooked. I later found out I was the only person ever who’d left the cage. [laughs]
I remember driving home after the dive filled with such peace and contentment at having had this encounter with a wild animal. I was absolutely intrigued. Part of that early attraction was being so close to such a predator, but that changed.
As a photographer, I was more intrigued with the shape of sharks. Their confidence. They moved so elegantly with this grace, this blending of grace and power. They exuded confidence and supremacy. I spent time trying to capture what the soul of a shark is, so I would return to them as a subject many times.
Over time, I came to see sharks as being something fragile — 100 million sharks are killed [by humans] every year, mostly for shark fin soup. There’s a lack of concern for the loss of sharks because people see them as these shadowy, one-dimensional creatures waiting to eat us. I’d been content making happy pictures, but as a journalist I couldn’t ignore that these so-called tough guys were struggling. They couldn’t overcome the anthropogenic struggles. As predators, they keep the ocean healthy, so I could see the correlation between breathing air and the health of the ocean. We should care about sharks. We should absolutely care about them.
There’s been more of a revolution for sharks recently. My more recent quest has been to help people appreciate their magnificence — sharks exist in a state of perfection in the ocean. Each is sculpted so differently.
Now I see them in all the ways I’ve grown to love them over the years. I want people to understand their importance, their magnificence. That’s one of the reasons I like doing the talks — there’s nothing quite like being in front of people and sharing stories to build empathy. It’s an essential way to communicate. It’s a bit of a race against time to create empathy for them.
CITA: Will you tell us one of your favorite Brian-and-sharks stories?
BRIAN: Great question! Yes, every time is a special moment. It’s an adrenaline high, but more than that, it’s a connection with nature and a privilege to be able to see what you see down there.
I’ll tell you about the first time I ever encountered an oceanic white tip shark.
So, the oceanic white tip shark is classified as the fourth most dangerous species, if you’re into that kind of thing. As recently as the 1970’s, they were considered the most abundant large animal on earth, something over 100 pounds. But today, with an estimated 99% in decline, they’re on the verge of extinction. I wanted to do a story, and I wanted to photograph the oceanic white tip.
I didn’t know anyone who’d seen one in a long time, but I heard a rumor some fishermen off Cat Island in the Bahamas had these sharks stealing yellowfin tuna off their lines. So, I get National Geographic to send me to Cat Island for 16 days so I can capture one of these sharks [on film]. We don’t see any oceanic white tips.
Later, we found out we went down there at the wrong time of the year.
Then, one day, mid-afternoon, an oceanic white tip appeared. About a 9-foot female.
She kept bouncing her nose off my camera; I was doing these pirouettes, rotating 360 degrees. She wasn’t trying to bite me, she was just curious, and we did this for about 15-20 minutes. We had a shark cage and put it down in the water, and Wes [Pratt] got in. I was able to get this picture and tell the story of the decline of this animal. Maybe this picture helps the conservation of this species.
The shark stayed with us, for some reasons, settling into lazy loops around the boat for a couple of hours. I can remember distinctly being in the blue Bahamian water, and she had this beautiful golden brown coloration, big pectoral fins, just gliding through the water like an aircraft. The light dappling on her back was so majestic, and she was so friendly. So polite. It was truly a magical moment for me, no doubt one of my most memorable.
CITA: Hearing your poetic descriptions of sharks reminds us of Jack Turner’s essay, “Mountain Lions,” where he talks about his emotional response to seeing a cougar for the first time, only later did he realize that he was smitten.
BRIAN (laughs): It’s hard not to be smitten in the presence of wilderness. I don’t think that’s unique to Jack or me, though. I think humans are drawn to that quality in nature. We need it. There’s something in our DNA that responds in a primal way to nature. When you see how perfectly adapted it is — it’s so perfect — you see the connection we have. We’re all connected in this.
CITA: Seems like, as humans, we’re finally moving away from the domination model, the extract-and-control model, that drove us before and trying to get back to belonging to the bigger picture of our relationship and interdependence.
BRIAN: I think it was John Muir who had the quote about tugging at one string in nature and finding it connected to everything else . . . the more time I spend in nature the more I realize that is so true. We’ve placed ourselves above and apart, and that is a mistake. The more we can understand how everything is connected, the better off we’ll be — we’ll have a different ethic.
CITA: We wanted to ask you about one of our favorite photographs, the right whale swooping in on the diver. What an extraordinary image of scale, of capturing a sense of harmony between a human and a whale.
BRIAN: I’d heard about a population of right whales near the Auckland Islands after I’d spent a year working on a story about the northern right whale, who is on the verge of extinction because these are urban whales that have a lot of stresses. This southern right whale, the Auckland population, didn’t know about people. I took an 82-foot sailboat and went down there for three weeks. When we showed up, it really was this moment of “natives swim out to greet us” when these giant whales came around the boat. I was in about 70 feet of water trying to photograph them, but they were so curious. They didn’t know what I was. They didn’t know about people. A whale would swim up, like a school bus, so big it would block out all the sunlight, right up to my face. I was bent backwards on the bottom in some kind of yoga pose, and this curious whale, it’s softball eye, looking right at me. It could have crushed me like a grape, but it didn’t. They’d try to touch me. I try not to touch any animals in the wild — they might not like it, and that’d be bad. Or they might really like it, and that would also be bad. But it was nudging me, nudging me, like it wanted me to pat it — it was unreal. Finally, I had this idea to take a photograph with a human and a whale, so I asked my assistant to get in the water. Here comes this 45-foot whale, and I got the picture.
This whale decided to hang out with us for two hours. I could never swim fast enough to catch up to an animal like this, so we knew they were choosing to be with us and spend time with us. I imagine it was like when the Pilgrims arrived, and whales were everywhere, so trusting and easily approachable.
It was important to show this trusting nature they have. Somewhere along the way we betrayed this trust. So it was a very special time to be in this moment down there with them.
CITA: And you’re going to bring your manatee pictures from the Crystal River when you come for your talk here?
BRIAN: Well, I thought since I’m coming to Florida, I had better bring them. (laughs) I’m also bringing a lot of other photographs, and I’ll be talking about solutions for the ocean, too, aquaculture. I used to be very skeptical of aquaculture, farming in the ocean, but I’ve done a 180 in my thinking on it. I’ll also have [pictures of] dolphins from a story I did on dolphin intelligence. I’m really looking forward to coming back.