For the past 19 years, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry has been circumnavigating the globe taking breathtaking photos of the sea and its creatures. In his travels he has also documented human beings’ destruction of these massive bodies of water so critical to all life. “When you consider how important the ocean is to all of us — that 98 percent of the biosphere, 98 percent of where life can exist on planet Earth is ocean, and that we get most of our oxygen from there — it’s very sad to think that only about 3 percent of the ocean is actually protected,” said Skerry in a recent phone interview with The Independent. He also spoke about conservation efforts, educating people on the perils facing our oceans, and the traction being made by the global community to repair the ecosystems.
I’m excited about your upcoming lecture at UCSB. What exactly are you going to focus on? It is a broad topic, but I guess this particular lecture is really an update of my most recent group of my stories for National Geographic magazine. The lecture sort of unfolds with a bit of a retrospective in the sense that I’ll be talking to the audience about how I approach my work, what things I’ve learned over the years. I’ve been working for the magazine as a photographer for almost 19 years, and I just wrapped up my 27th feature story for them, so there’s been somewhat of an evolution in my career.
I began, like many photographers, just wanting to do stories about things that interested me — you know, cool animals and interesting places. But I began to see a lot of problems occurring in the world’s oceans, and didn’t see a lot of that getting covered, so as a journalist I sort of felt responsible to tell those stories as well, even though they’re not the more fun things to work on, but I wanted to talk about things like the global fish crisis problem, or the species that are in peril because of human anthropogenic stresses.
So the beginning of the lecture will go through that little narrative about how I’ve been privileged to spend time in nature, and I’ve spent eight or nine months of the year for the last two decades out there, and it’s been extraordinary. But I begin to look at I wanted to be as a storyteller, about how my work as a photojournalist evolved from just making pretty pictures to doing more of a reportage, sort of harder-hitting issues. I also realized that, if I’m gonna grab people, I need to mix it up. So then I take the audience with me on assignment, and show them different approaches I take with different stories. So it might be a story on a place like Mesoamerican Reef, which is the world’s second largest barrier reef system, but, unlike the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, this one goes through four different countries —Mexico and Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala. What I’m trying to do with a story like that is more than just a collection of pretty pictures but to show that all of these animals that live there, and all of the ecosystems are very much interdependent — that the coral reefs are important, but they couldn’t survive alone without places like mangroves or sea grass beds, and that in terms of conservation, we need to take this big approach; we need to see how everything is very much dependent on one another, and we need to look at it that way to protect it.
So that might be one story that I’ll share. And then there’s another story on the Atlantic Bluefin tuna, which is one of the most remarkable animals on the planet. And if it were a terrestrial animal, [people] would probably build temples to it, because this is such an incredible animal. There’s nothing like it on land. It continues to grow its entire life, and if we weren’t so good at hunting them and killing them, there’d be 30-year-old Bluefin out there that weigh a ton, but they don’t get anywhere near that big these days because we’re way too efficient at killing them.
So anyway, I’ll share the experiences of being the first person to photograph a giant Bluefin underwater in Nova Scotia, in Canada, in these clean, temperate waters. I talk about dolphin intelligence. I did a cover story for National Geographic last year, after spending two years being in nine locations around the world working with five different species of dolphins, as a way of trying to show some of the ways that we know they’re smart. We know they’re super-intelligent, but it’s very hard to study them because they’re in the ocean, so I look at things like feeding strategies or social behaviors, or things that they do, you know, games that they play in the ocean and things like that.
So essentially I sort of bounce around [my] different approaches. One is looking at a big region like the Mesoamerican Reef, another is looking at critically endangered animals, like the Bluefin tuna, another one is about intelligence in animals. But all of these different ways might resonate with different people and get them interested in caring about the ocean. Having spent almost 40 years exploring the ocean, 20 years working for National Geographic, I’ve come to realize that the ocean is integrally tied to us. Every other breath that a human being takes comes from the ocean. You know, more than 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the sea, and we need to understand it and protect it. So any way that I can get people jazzed about the ocean, that’s what I’m trying to do.
So “Ocean Wild: The Light beneath the Sea,” is really about the light that not only I bring to my subjects but the light that I have been given, the illumination that I’ve been given doing this work.
I’m still amazed that people don’t recognize the role of the oceans in the world. Well, it’s hard to believe that half the country, — well, 40 percent of the country — doesn’t believe that there’s climate change. We have to try to beat the drum and engage people in any way that we can. I would be very comfortable just beating the drum and preaching the problems of the ocean, but maybe if I do a story about dolphin intelligence — which doesn’t appear to be a conservation story, it’s really a science story, and it’s about these cool animals — maybe some percentage of the population will look at that and say, “Wow, that’s really cool, I had no idea.” Then if you say, “But their habitat is dying and these are animals that are imperiled because we’re killing the ocean,” then maybe they’ll being to care. So for me it’s about finding new ways to tell stories that matter, stories that get people to care.
That is a lifelong education process. It is. I have a long way to go.
What is the funnest story you’ve ever done? I have to say that — there’s been several that are really enjoyable, from working under the ice with harp seals, I just did three back-to-back stories on sharks this summer for National Geographic. But one of the more fun stories that I did was about marine reserves, believe it or not, about the value of protecting places in the ocean and I did that in New Zealand. And I ultimately wound my way from the very tip of the South Island in New Zealand to the top of the North Island, and worked in all these coastal marine reserves. And each of them was very different. The ecosystem was different — there was warm, blue water in the north and chilly temperate water in the south, but in each of these places I saw that because of conservation, because of protection, the ecosystem had rebounded. Some of these places had been sort of decimated, but because they had been created as no-take marine reserves, where no fishing was allowed… the ocean had the ability to heal itself.
I remember before going diving in one of these place, I was invited to have tea with an old-time Kiwi diver, an old New Zealand diver, and over tea he happened to mention to me the place that I was gonna be diving the next day… he believed was better today, that the marine life was better there today than it was when he started diving in the 1950s. And that night as I was preparing my equipment for the next day’s dive, it suddenly dawned on me that nowhere in the world have I ever been where somebody said that. You know, everywhere I go, people say, “Oh, you should have been here in the 1980s,” “You should have been here a decade ago, the corals were better, the fish were better, whatever.
But here was a place that is better today than it was in the 1950s, because in the 1980s they made it into “no take” reserve. And it was. It was abundant, it was lush, there was diversity, lots of animals at every level of the ecosystem. So it was a pleasant surprise. I did that story after working on this very depressing story about the global fish crisis, about all the problems of overfishing in the world. But I saw that if we just give nature a chance, it has the ability to heal itself. And that’s a message that I’ve carried with me wherever I go, to tell people that it’s not too late. We’ve lost 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean, we’ve lost 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs, you know, there’s acidification, there’s plastic, there’s all these things. But at least now we know the problem, we have the answers, and we just have to have the will to act on that. But there’s hope, if we look for it, and that sort of was a pleasant surprise.
Plus, I did enjoy New Zealand, just driving around there; it was a great country to be in. So to answer your question, I guess that was one of my more fun places and stories.
I wonder what prompted New Zealand to make a marine reserve, and why we aren’t following suit? New Zealand has been very progressive in terms of conservation in general, both on land and in the water. When you consider how important the ocean is to all of us, and when you consider that 98 percent of the biosphere, 98 percent of where life can exist on planet Earth is ocean, and that we get most of our oxygen from there, it’s very sad to think that only about 3 percent of the ocean is actually protected. And of that 3 percent, only 1 percent is truly “No-take” protected. So you know, most scientists would argue for at least 40 percent. At least 40 percent so that we have a replenish zone, so fish can reproduce, so we have oxygen. We have a long way to go, but there is some traction. A number of countries have created some big marine zones in recent years. I was just with President Obama in Midway Atoll in September, where he just created the world’s largest marine protected area, in the last days of August. It’s the Northwest Hawaiian Island [Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument]
It is cool, and the world leaders are seeing this and doing this — but all the more reason, honestly, in this election season, that we look at those kinds of things. I did a speaking engagement here in Massachusetts where I live the other night, and people ask, “What can I do? And I say, first we have to have leaders who recognize that there’s a problem and can understand the way to the solution. I mean, if we deny that there’s a problem, we’re never going to get there. We’re in a moment of time when we can do something, and I think there’s a growing will from the people to do good things. But it’s fragile. So it is sort of shocking that we’re not further along at this point in time, 2016. But I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get there.
What’s the United States’ scorecard like? Well, I don’t know what percentage of our oceans has been protected. It’s not a lot. I will say that California has been a real leader in that, there is a string of coastal marine reserves in California that have been a model, I think, for many other states, and they’ve really taken the initiative and the lead on that. This new effort by the president to create the world’s largest marine protected area in Northwest Hawaiian Islands, he’s created the Atlantic’s very first marine reserve here in the New England area, the new [Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument]… And you know, this isn’t a partisan issue — I mean, even George W. Bush, who didn’t have a very good record environmentally, at the end of his administration, he created marine reserves as well. So I think that, the track record hasn’t been great for the United States, but we’re getting there, and we’ve had some recent progress and it would be nice so see that continue, so we’re hoping.
In Santa Barbara we’re quite attached to our ocean, and we’ve had oil spills that got people up in arms and stopped some oil from coming through. So you have the coastal states do some things, but how do you convince the rest of the country, who think the health of the seas don’t affect them? It does affect them and that’s the challenge, and that’s a big part of what I do. I do speaking engagements in Kansas City and Omaha and various places throughout the Midwest, and you know, maybe it’s just the nature of the people who come to my shows, but most people seem to really get it. But yeah, we have to penetrate those walls out there that exist… It’s gonna be essential that we have to remove ourselves from the ivory towers and say that we are very much connected to the climate and what we do to it, because what we have been doing to it is ultimately hurting us. When we make that sea change in our mind, if we can change that shift of focus, I think we will move a lot quicker in that direction.
Your task or mission is so admirable, to keep doing it year after year after year. Thank you, but you know, you have two choices at the end of the day: You can either give up or you keep fighting. It gets depressing at times and you lose faith but every now and then you get inspired by talking to the right people and seeing that it is worth fighting for.
And then you go in the water and you meet a little critter. That’s right. Who doesn’t have a voice and we have to be the voice…
I think the critters might be the ones that save the oceans because who doesn’t like a dolphin? That’s right, I totally agree. And that’s where I feel that I have a leg up; that I can make those pictures that will get people’s attention, and tell them what matters.
Do you have a favorite sea creature? That’s hard. I can’t really say that I have a favorite, it’s like picking a favorite child [chuckles], I don’t wanna have to go there.
You don’t lean toward the mammals? I do. I mean obviously the picture of the whale and the diver of mine that’s been very popular. But you know, I love sharks and they need a lot of help, too.
They have a bad rap. They do have a bad rap, but they’re so important to the health of the ocean.
Even the white ones? Oh! Absolutely! Critical.
Who gobble people up? [Laughs] No, no. You’re much more likely to die of a selfie than by a shark. That’s a fact.
I heard that somewhere else too! It’s true.
That you’re more likely to die falling over a cliff with a cell phone than get eaten by a shark. Exactly.
But why are people so enamored—well, not enamored — with Great Whites? Well, because it’s centuries of portraying them as monsters.
I think people aren’t aware of how many different kinds of sharks there are and that most of them are not flesh eaters. There’s 500 species of sharks out there, most of them are pretty benign. But even so, the predators need to be respected — like we do grizzly bears and a lion. I mean, we can have a healthy respect and fear of them a little bit but we don’t have to demonize them. There’s a difference.
What about the stuff going on in Asia, in Japan? Oh, it’s awful.
Still! After all the negative attention its gotten? It is. It’s gotten a little better, they’ve made some improvements with shark fin soup, but we’re still killing in excess of a 100 million sharks every year, mostly for their fins.
Just for their fins! Yeah. We can’t do it. Now they’re learning that, they’re using sharks in cosmetics, all kinds of things. So it’s bad. Yeah. There’s more info coming out about that too, so we really need to [save the] sharks, it’s really vital.
So even shame hasn’t stopped some people? No. Because it’s a low-cost source [of material]. People slaughter them and they get what they need out of them and nobody’s worried.
Brian Skerry’s presentation Ocean Wild: The Light Beneath the Seas takes place Sunday, November 20, 3 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.