Brain Skerry Ocean Soul
I am certain it was love at first sight, though I honestly cannot remember the first time I saw her. What I do know is that I fell in love with the sea as a child and from that early age my course was set for a lifelong voyage more wondrous than even my wildest, childhood dreams. Growing up in a small, working class town in Massachusetts about an hour’s drive from the ocean was not a place that would seem to inspire such passion. But days spent on the beaches of Rhode Island, Cape Cod and New Hampshire were a taste of something magical, an unusual blend of adventure, mystery and calmness that stirred my soul and sealed my fate. I think for those that are drawn to the sea, the attraction is not something that can be easily explained. It is an unseeing force, a siren’s song that lures us to the water.
As a boy I dreamed of swimming with dolphins, whales and sharks, of exploring sunken shipwrecks and of traveling to far away places. Lying on the living room floor of my home, I watched Cousteau documentaries and read books about life in the ocean. I spent countless hours flipping through the pages of National Geographic Magazine studying pictures of undersea animals and divers, and knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. With a toy mask and fins in my backyard swimming pool, I pretended to be the explorers I saw in magazines and on television. I spent endless summers swimming from one end of the pool to the other imagining I was on some exotic coral reef or leading an expedition in search of some elusive creature under the sea.
Although the dreams of children often vanish with age, my desire to become a diver only grew stronger. When I was about fifteen, I tried SCUBA for the first time. Once again, it was in my pool, but I remember vividly the incredible sensation of breathing underwater. Sitting in the pool’s shallow end, I tentatively took my first breath from the regulator and by the third breath thought simultaneously, “I can’t really be breathing underwater, can I?” and “Wow, I have discovered a whole new world!” That summer I explored local lakes, quarries and reservoirs with a friend from school, but by the following summer I was exploring the ocean as a certified SCUBA diver. Those first ocean dives in New England waters were exhilarating, and there was something that just felt right to me about being in the sea. I was completely in my element underwater and was happy even just kneeling on the bottom of a sandy beach and swaying with the surge.
Having spent years standing at the water’s edge, I was finally immersed within. Moving through dimly lit green water, I saw orange metridium anemones clinging to rocks and silvery schools of pollock swimming by my mask. Shining my light under rocky crevasses, I discovered lobsters and crabs and eels. Clusters of blue mussels hung from pilings and flounder, covered in sand hoping not to be seen, shot off like a rocket when I approached too near leaving a cloud of silt in their wake. The water was cold and my equipment cumbersome, but none of that really mattered. It was a small price to pay for the treasure trove I was getting in return. Exiting the water on those days, I felt a sense of contentment unlike any I had experienced before. I was tired, salty and sometimes sunburned, but completely relaxed and very, very happy.
The title of my book, Ocean Soul, came to me years ago as I reflected on what it is I photograph. When asked what my favorite subjects are, I have a hard time answering since I am fascinated by all animals and ecosystems underwater. Some photographers specialize in big animals or in macro creatures, some only in warm waters while others prefer the cold. I have never been able to pick an absolute favorite because I truly love it all. What I enjoy more than anything, however, is making pictures that evoke the true essence of an animal.
I often feel a life force emanating from creatures I photograph – an energy that is tangible and which defines an individual animal. I try to use that energy to make pictures, which are more than simply a record – wanting instead to preserve a moment in time, an instant when a creature’s spirit is captured in a blend of light, gesture and grace. Ocean Soul describes this life force that exists within animals and places in the sea and that emanates from the ocean as a whole. And, I suppose it is also how I see myself – as an ocean soul – having spent the majority of my life chasing that dream and being drawn by that tidal force of the sea.
Like most photographers, my interest has always been to make beautiful pictures of subjects that inspire me. The creative process has been my strongest motivator – wanting to spend time in nature and interpret what was before my eyes with a camera. My greatest joy comes from producing photographs that celebrate nature and reveal magical, natural moments. But there has been an evolution in my work throughout the years, a path that has led from striving only to capture nature’s beauty to a journalistic focus on the many threats facing our oceans and marine wildlife as well.
We live on a water planet; yet, I wonder how many of us actually see it that way? Water covers more than three quarters of the planet’s surface and represents nearly 98 percent of the livable volume. And, the majority of the air we breathe comes from the sea. Knowing this, a logical conclusion would be that mankind must do everything possible to protect this vital component of our home when clearly our own survival depends on it. Instead, we have treated our precious waters like a sewer, a place to throw chemicals and trash. We have removed wildlife from the sea for centuries and destroyed entire ecosystems while conserving very little. I have always believed that the sea suffers the fate of being regarded as vast and deep with endless resources and bounty. Yet, I know the reality is far different. She is resilient indeed, but will die a death from a thousand cuts unless we take bold steps to ensure her protection.
I have been blessed to realize my dream of becoming an underwater photojournalist. But, with that, I feel an obligation and sense of urgency to share what I have seen with others. It would be fun to pursue only celebratory pictures of nature, but it is because of my love for the sea that I photograph the disturbing scenes as well in hopes of raising awareness. Photography can be a powerful instrument for change and photojournalists can tell stories that make a difference.
Within my book are elements of all that I have seen and learned in more than three decades spent exploring the sea – my passion and dreams, the life force of the sea and the wounds she suffers. Together they represent Ocean Soul.
About Brian Skerry
Brian Skerry is a photojournalist specializing in marine wildlife and underwater environments. Since 1998 he has been a contract photographer for National Geographic Magazine covering a wide range of subjects and stories. An award-winning photographer, Skerry is praised worldwide for his aesthetic sense as well as his journalistic drive for relevance. His uniquely creative images tell stories that not only celebrate the mystery and beauty of the sea, but also help bring attention to the large number of issues that endanger our oceans and its inhabitants.
Unique within the field of underwater photography is Skerry’s ability to pursue subjects of great diversity. He typically spends eight months each year in the field and frequently finds himself in environments of extreme contrast, from tropical coral reefs to diving beneath polar ice. While on assignment Skerry has lived on the bottom of the sea, spent months aboard fishing boats and traveled in everything from snowmobiles to canoes to the Goodyear Blimp to get the picture. He has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater within the last 30 years.
For National Geographic Magazine (NGM), Skerry has covered a wide range of stories from the harp seal’s struggle to survive in frozen waters to the alarming decrease in the world’s fisheries – both cover stories. Other NGM features have focused on subjects such as the planet’s last remaining pristine coral reefs, the plight of the right whale, sharks of the Bahamas, marine reserves, sea turtles and squid. Skerry is currently at work on his 20th story for NGM.
Skerry has also worked on assignment for, or had images featured in, magazines such as Sports Illustrated, US News and World Report, BBC Wildlife, GEO, Smithsonian, Esquire, Audubon, Men’s Journal and in countless other publications worldwide. His latest book, a 160-photo monograph entitled Ocean Soul, will be released in November 2011.
Skerry frequently lectures on photography and conservation issues and has presented at venues such as TED Talks, Harvard University, The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Geographical Society in London. He is also a regular guest on programs such as NBC’s Today Show, CBS’s Sunday Morning and ABC’s Good Morning America.
After three decades of exploring the world’s oceans, Skerry continues to pursue stories that will increase awareness about the sea. He comments: “The oceans are in trouble. There are some serious problems out there that I believe are not clear to many people. My hope is to continually find new ways of creating images and stories that both celebrate the sea yet also highlight environmental problems. Photography can be a powerful instrument for change.”
Skerry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.