You could forgive Brian Skerry if he let a hint of despair seep into his voice. He did, after all, achieve his lifelong dream of becoming an underwater wildlife photographer just in time to see the coral reefs, fish and other creatures he loves start disappearing from the world’s oceans. “Everywhere I go, I notice the wildlife just isn’t what it used to be,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. “There are places where I’ve spent weeks and not seen a single shark, and I know if I’d been there ten years earlier, I would have seen dozens.”
But Skerry is also an optimist who hopes—believes—that his startling photographs can actually do something about this problem. “I decided to show people the animals that we were losing, and give them an appreciation for things like bluefin tuna—to see them not just as seafood, but as wildlife. My goal is to make pictures that stay with people for a lifetime.”
A new exhibition of Skerry’s work, “Portraits of Planet Ocean,” opening April 5 at the Natural History Museum, comes at a pivotal moment for the undersea world. Since 1950, scientists say, overfishing has caused populations of large fish species to decline by 90 percent. “The oceans are a giant, robust ecosystem,” says Nancy Knowlton, the museum’s Sant chair for marine science, who helped design the exhibition, “but they can’t take infinite assault.”
There are few people better qualified to sound the alarm than Skerry, 51, who has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater over the course of his 30-year career. Inspired by the Jacques Cousteau documentaries he watched as a boy, he became certified in scuba at age 15; after attecnding Worcester State University, he got started in underwater photography by working on charter boats off the New England coast and documenting shipwrecks. Eventually, he received assignments from Smithsonian, National Geographic and other outlets, taking pictures in the subfreezing waters of the Arctic and the coral reefs of the South Pacific. He calls his career a “billion-to-one shot.”
It’s a career that poses unique challenges. “We work in a very hostile, alien environment, and we can only stay down for brief periods of time,” he says. While wearing some 40 pounds of lead to stay underwater—along with thermal protection, air tanks and other gear—Skerry operates a camera housed in a waterproof case. What’s more, he can’t just ask his subjects to sit still, and because he often needs to use a flash to illuminate the murk, he seldom has the luxury of observing from afar. “Underwater animals have to let you get very close,” he says, “because we can’t use telephoto lenses.”
Off the Auckland Islands south of New Zealand, where he went to photograph a newly discovered southern right whale population, cooperation wasn’t a problem: “The scientist I was with believed that they’d never seen a human before, so they were very curious. This particular whale ended up spending about two hours with us. It was like something out of a dream.” In Florida’s Crystal River, he recalls, a manatee “relaxed and allowed me into his world.” In the resulting portrait, included in the exhibition, the animal’s undisguised inquisitiveness mirrors the way Skerry must have looked while snapping the picture.
Not all of Skerry’s work is so cheery: He’s recently begun photographing creatures like dead manta rays and swordfish caught in nets, the products of indiscriminate fishing methods that ensnare enormous amounts of bycatch for every fish harvested. In the future, he plans to highlight potential solutions, such as protected marine reserves and sustainable approaches to fishing. “We've got seven billion people on the planet, so we're going to have to use the ocean as a resource,” he says. “My hope is that we can figure out how to do it in a nondestructive way.”