Brian Skerry on thinking like a fish and the future

In the final part of my interview with National Geographic underwater photographer, Brian Skerry, I give him the chance to talk to the fishes, to meet any animal in the ocean, and on a more serious note I ask for his thoughts on the future of the oceans.

And don’t forget, Brian’s new book, Ocean Soul, featuring the best of his work photographing the oceans of the world, is out now.

Helen: If I let you have a go on the Seamonster magic wand to conjure up an encounter with an ocean species that you haven’t yet photographed - which would you choose?

Brian: I’ve never been close to a blue whale. Well, I’ve been close but I didn’t see it. I was in Mexico once and I jumped in the water and swam towards it and my friends back in the boat said I was probably within 50 or 60 feet (20 m) but the visibility wasn’t good enough so I never saw it underwater. So I’d love to have a really close encounter in good visibility water with a blue whale.

I’m also very enchanted by a lot of arctic creatures. I’ve not been in the water with narwhals and I think they’re very magical enchanting creatures, so I’d love to photograph them as well.

Helen: You spend a lot of time watching marine animals – do you ever wonder what’s going through their minds? And if you could ask them one question, what would it be?

Brian: I wonder that all the time, Helen, I really do. Maybe it’s a childlike thing about me. I do think about that – particularly with marine mammals. I guess we attribute greater intelligence or awareness to marine mammals although I believe that all marine creatures are very aware. I believe there’s this great wisdom in the ocean and I sort of imply that with the title of my book, Ocean Soul, and I talk about that in the introduction, that I think there’s a life force that I feel that’s exuded from animals and places in the sea that I try to capture photographically. It’s very hard to do.

I’ve had the privilege of working with so many different kinds of scientists. On one story I’ll work with a shark biologist, and another I’ll work with a cephalopod scientist who knows everything about squid, and another time it’s a turtle scientist or a seal biologist. Each of those people knows so much about their own field but I’ve had the privilege throughout my career to see it all – from a very layman point of view – but I’m trying to put the puzzle together and connect the dots.

I just think it’s all connected. I think that sharks need sea turtles, and sea turtles need fish, and fish need seals, and everything works like a well-oiled machine. It’s a fine Swiss clock with all the gears turning together and whenever we impact any one part of that the machine goes off kilter and doesn’t work as well.

My belief is that there is this ancient wisdom that there’s this soul to the sea and if I could just be given one little bit of information, if I could get a little glimpse into how that machinery all works, I would love that.

So if there’s a question that I could ask I’d probably choose a wise old whale or sea turtle and I would just ask him to give me one piece of the puzzle. I don’t expect to know it all, and I don’t think they’d share it all – we really have to earn that.

Keep reading to find out what new projects Brian is working right now and to find out his hopes and fears for the future of the oceans.

Helen: So Brian, what are you working on right now?

Brian: I’ve completed a story that should be published later this year on the Mesoamerican reef. This is the world’s second largest barrier reef system but unlike Australia this one connects through four different countries. It begins in Mexico, it goes through Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.

The story isn’t so much about the reef proper but it’s actually about the connectivity of different ecosystems. So I spend a lot of time working not only on coral reef but in mangrove and seagrass bed. These various ecosystems are very dependent on each other, so we can’t just protect the reef we must protect swaths of ocean so that everything works.

I’ve also got five new stories that I’m working on right now. The one that’s probably closest to being finished is a story about seamounts – underwater mountains. They are very important hotspots in the ocean, the biodiversity is incredible, they’re vulnerable because fishing fleets are beginning to target them, sending down trawls down 2 or 3 miles to collect fish that are very old and long-lived. It would be a mistake to continue that.

There’s no way I could ever do a story that would be all encompassing on the subject of seamounts. But this one will hopefully give readers a little glimpse into the world of these underwater mountains and just how precious they are.

Helen: How are you photographing them? Aren’t seamounts quite deep?

Brian: On this next trip I’ll be in Costa Rica using a submersible and ROVs to do a lot of the photography. But I recently did a trip 100 miles off the coast of California to a seamount that comes up to very shallow water, and it’s a kelp forest environment where I photographed a range of stunning animals – seals, sharks, rays, fish, and all kinds of great stuff. I also spent a little time in Indonesia and Mexico. So the collective story will look at little bits from all these places to try to paint a picture of what seamounts are all about.

Helen: Okay, let’s wrap this all up with a big, difficult question. What are your hopes and fears for the ocean?

Brian: I’ve often said in recent times I believe the oceans are dying a death from a thousand cuts. There are so many assailants that are assaulting the ocean and so much of it goes unseen. The oceans suffer from this terrible fate of having this beautiful exterior that we all see when we go to beach or go sailing and you don’t know unless you’re diving regularly about the problems that are happening beneath the waves.

I’ve been diving 35 years, which may seem like a long time but really isn’t in terms of being able to witness change. And yet I’ve seen degradation. I see less fish in places where I used to see lots of fish. I see coral reefs dying, sharks not being in places I used to see sharks. I know about all these things from over fishing, to plastics in the ocean, to acidification, to sea temperature rise, all these terrible things.

So I have great fears about all these things and I think it’s a bit of a race for us to try to correct or reverse these things.

On the other hand, I guess I do remain somewhat of an eternal optimist. I believe that it isn’t too late. I think that even though we’ve lots 50% of the coral reefs we still have 50% of the coral reefs here. And even though 90% of the big fish in the ocean may have been wiped out we still have 10% of the sharks and billfish and tuna left.

So it’s not over and I’m encouraged by the creations of Marine Protected Areas that’s been happening.The ocean knows how to heal itself and we can just create places where the ocean is left alone, it will heal, it will restore itself.

I think we’re in a very interesting time for the ocean. It is under great assault, but there are some heroes that are stepping up to the challenge. It should be a very interesting decade ahead.

One thought on “Brian Skerry on thinking like a fish and the future”

  1. While I applaud the recent ruling against cruise ships and and large commercial vessels regarding releasing sewage within three miles of the California coast under a rule signed by the EPA Thursday, I deplore the idea
    that this awful gunk is going in the ocean at all. This is a baby step, more needs to be done.

    And I really enjoyed this article!

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