Underwater treasure: Brian Skerry

Uxbridge photographer finds beauty and danger while capturing sea’s creatures on film
By  Pamela  H.  Sacks


UXBRIDGE – You can’t help asking Brian Skerry if he’s ever been scared – really, really scared.

Mr. Skerry, who is considered one of the world’s top underwater photographers, rolls his eyes, offers a quick smile and allows that he has had his moments. You picture a close encounter with a barracuda bearing its jagged teeth, or, perhaps, an inadvertent swim amid a school of piranhas.

What Mr. Skerry says comes as a surprise. “I was lost inside the Andrea Doria in the second-class dining area – just for a few seconds.”

He goes on to explain that a diver has 20 to 25 minutes worth of air before he must start a slow ascent to the surface to gradually flush out the nitrogen that has built up in his joints and muscles. Otherwise, the nitrogen will cause severe pain and, perhaps, death.

“I went inside the wreck,” Mr. Skerry says, recounting the Andrea Doria episode. “I was trying to photograph a china closet. Whenever you penetrate a shipwreck, it’s very disorienting. You have to recognize a stairway, a bathroom sink and remember where you are going. You get nitrogen narcosis, and your senses are not as acute as on the surface.

“I remember swimming out and I turned a corner and for just a second I didn’t know which way to go,” he continues. “I knew I was close to the exit, less than 50 feet away, but it might as well have been a mile. One wrong turn and it could be all over. I stopped for a moment and tried not to panic. I said, `OK, let me go this way.’”

For Mr. Skerry, that sort of momentary terror is balanced by the thrill of photographing marine wildlife few have a chance to see in its natural habitat. He has been a dedicated diver since he was 16 and a photographer for more than two decades. He has taken pictures in waters from Cape Cod to the Azores to the Bahamas.

He likes cold water, but Mexico’s Baja California also has special appeal.

“I’m drawn to animals like the marlin – big game animals,” Mr. Skerry says. “You can’t predict where you’re going to find them. You’ve got to go out and spend time. You’re out in the blue water, drifting. A marlin comes by; it’s spectacular, it’s magic.”

Six years ago, the editors at National Geographic gave Mr. Skerry a chance to prove his mettle. They quickly recognized his talent and then groomed him to be a contributing photographer.

Last month, he had his first National Geographic cover story. It featured 13 photographs of Harp seals in the frigid waters of Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The photographs, each of them exquisite, together are compelling in their power to convey the relationship between a seal pup and its mother. One is of a sniff between a pup, with its fluffy white coat, and its sleek, gray mother. Another, taken underwater, is of a mother using her nose to push her 7-day-old pup back onto the ice. The pup had fallen through and would not have been robust enough to survive the 28-degree water.

The shoot was Mr. Skerry’s idea. For 20 years, he says, he had wanted to photograph Harp seals during their season to mate, give birth and molt. The environment is harsh; temperatures drop to 30 below. Ice packs constantly shift with the winds and the tide.

Mr. Skerry got off the plane in a blizzard and recalls thinking, “I’ve arrived. I’ve made it to the place I always wanted to go. Now, I have to do it.” He spent a total of eight weeks over a two-year period shooting the pictures.

Kathy Moran, an illustrations editor at National Geographic, says Mr. Skerry has a rare talent in his ability to tell a story through photographs.

“For the National Geographic, it’s just not enough that someone brings back beautiful photos,” Ms. Moran says. “They have to be journalistic in nature. A lot of photographers can make a beautiful image of a Harp seal. Not many can go out and tell a story. It requires time, patience and energy. And, staying out there in harsh conditions.”

Mr. Skerry remembers having a love of the water from the time he was a toddler splashing around in his parents’ swimming pool in Uxbridge. By the age of 15, he was training in scuba gear.

After graduating from Uxbridge High School in 1979, he went on to Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, where he met Marcia Majeau, the woman who would become his wife. The two attended the annual convention of the Boston Sea Rovers, which draws divers, scientists and photographers from around the world. Mr. Skerry was blown away. “I remember thinking, `Wow, that’s what I want to do,’” he says.

He bought a secondhand camera from the Want Advertiser but had no idea how to use it. He went on to Worcester State College and started taking courses in photography, film and visualization, so that he could use the camera under water.

“I was really self-taught,” he says. “It was a slow and long evolution. There is no place, no job listing to turn to.”

By the early 1980s, he was accompanying a handful of elite divers who sought out shipwrecks littering the bottom of New England waters. He photographed a passenger liner, The Romance, which sank in the 1920s, and The Alva, a palatial Vanderbilt yacht that was rammed and went down off Chatham. He took pictures of a rum runner, The John Dwight, which sat in 90 feet of water off Cuttyhunk, an island off the coast of New Bedford. On a foggy night, the captain killed the crew, sank the boat and stole off with the money.

Mr. Skerry spent summers taking customers wreck diving on a charter boat. In order to get the work, he had to repair the boat during the winter.

“I would lie in the snow underneath the hull on my back, grinding the bottom paint off, miserable, wet and cold,” he recalls.

Mr. Skerry knew that if he could photograph in the dark, cold waters of New England, he could do it anywhere. Before long, he was traveling with other divers to sites around the world, where he snapped pictures of swordfish, tuna and sharks. He was the first to photograph a three-meter-long oarfish, a legendary sea serpent that is rarely seen.

He sold his first photograph – not surprisingly, one of a New England shipwreck- to The Boston Globe and went on to provide stock photos for Esquire, the Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated and People, among other publications.

Mr. Skerry’s break with National Geographic occurred when underwater photographer Bill Curtsinger passed an assignment on to him. But it was a particularly difficult shoot of a pirate ship that sank in 1717 off Cape Cod. Mr. Skerry remembers Mr. Curtsinger saying, “If you want it, I’ll propose your name. But you might want to wait for another chance.”

National Geographic is the creme de la creme of natural history magazines, with its worldwide circulation of 6.6 million; Mr. Skerry’s instincts told him to go for it.

The editors liked what he got and sent him into the field with renowned underwater photographer David Doubilet, who had an assignment in the Cuban reefs.

“I knew I was being given an incredible opportunity,” Mr. Skerry says. “They were saying, `We want you to go out with our best guy and take your work to another level.’”

Then the assignments started flowing. In 2000, Mr. Skerry photographed the Confederate submarine the  H.L. Hunley off the coast of South Carolina. The following year, the subject was shipwrecks of the D-Day invasion off Normandy, France.

By 2002, Mr. Skerry found himself 65 feet under the sea working with aquanauts aboard the Aquarius, the world’s only ocean-floor research habitat. Among the scientists studying Florida’s Conch Reef was Dr. Greg Stone, vice president of global marine programs at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Dr. Stone discovered that Mr. Skerry had an encyclopedic knowledge of marine life, along with his superb photography skills.

“He creates the most intriguing, spectacular photographs I have ever seen of underwater life,” Dr. Stone wrote in an e-mail message from his home in New Zealand. “He was teaching me things about marine animals during our Aquarius mission. He knows how to tell fascinating, honest, important stories about the oceans through photography. And, he is also one of the nicest and easiest people to work with.”

Mr. Skerry, an affable, boyish-looking 42, now runs his own business, Brian Skerry Photography (www.brianskerry.com). He is paid $400 to $600 a day while on assignment for National Geographic and other publications. That work generally consumes eight to 15 weeks a year. The balance of the time, he works out of the barn-red, airy home that he and his wife built four years ago. He carries the oceanic theme into his office, with its blue carpet resembling the ripples of a tropical sea. A model of a yellow fin tuna hangs over his desk.

He lectures, writes books and sells limited editions of his prints. “To make a living, I have to do many things,” Mr. Skerry says.

He and his wife have a 7-year-old daughter, Katherine, and an infant, Caroline, who is 2 months old. Mrs. Skerry says she has gotten used to the long absences.

“Depending on where he is, I worry more or less,” she says. “I don’t worry most of the time. When he’s out of contact, it’s hard. You’re always wondering.”

With good reason.

Over the years, Mr. Skerry has been chased by a sperm whale and bitten by sharks. He has swum next to a fierce Humboldt squid, which has tiny sharp teeth along its arms and a beak like a parrot that could take big chunks of flesh out of a human. He ingested a parasite in Venezuela that made him deathly ill and resulted in his developing a massive kidney stone. One the way home, in excruciating pain, he had his camera equipment, worth $50,000, stolen at Miami Airport.

Yet Mr. Skerry’s greatest fear is what is happening to the world’s oceans.

“The oceans are in real trouble,” he says. ” In 26 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve personally seen oceans become depleted wherever I go. Every scientific study drives home the point that we cannot continue to do what we do. Without progressive action and planning, the oceans are on the verge of a disaster of epic proportions.

“I need to balance stories of magnificence with those on the serious problems,” he reflects. “As a journalist, the most important thing I can do is to bring awareness.”