Skerry: Photography sheds light on plight of marine animals

Photojournalist Brian Skerry speaks in front a slideshow of his photos Thursday morning in the Amphitheater. Skerry spends much of his time underwater, photographing ocean life and reporting the good and bad of what is happening below the surface. Photo by Lauren Rock.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

When a harp seal swims for the first time, the air trapped in its fur coat causes it to bob in the water. A mother watches proudly from behind.

Before it can learn to swim, the harp seal nurses for 14 days atop the ice at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where harp seals migrate for a few weeks each year in February and March.

But two problems face the seals. Hundreds of baby harp seals are killed each year to make mittens, hats and coats. And the ice that remains in the location is thin, which means seals can fall through before they are ready to swim.

Photojournalist Brian Skerry’s story on harp seals was one of his first cover stories focused on environmental issues for National Geographic magazine, published in 2004. During Thursday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater, he took the audience through his personal journey as a photographer.

Skerry shared two photos from when he worked on the harp seal story. One was of a hunter dragging a seal carcass to land. In another, a seal five or six days old had fallen through thin ice, and its mother was frantically pushing it up for air. Though the seal survived, many others do not.

The story inspired Skerry to work on more stories focused on environmental issues in the ocean, he said. He has explored many places around the world to photograph a variety of marine wildlife.

As a photographer, Skerry has learned that the best way for him to solve the puzzles of the ocean is by spending time underwater. Focusing on behaviors is an important aspect of storytelling, but taking visually compelling photos to attract readers is also important.

“I need to understand the science,” he said, “but what I really want to capture is the poetry of what happens in the ocean.”

After his harp seal cover story, Skerry worked on another about the global fish crisis, which is worldwide overfishing.

He wanted to look into that topic, because he witnessed fewer fish and sharks in places that used to have many, and he read a report that stated 90 percent of predators have disappeared in the past 50 years, he said.

The story had several angles. Skerry wanted to approach it like war photography; he wanted to show readers what was happening to marine life worldwide. But he also wanted to show what he calls “marine appreciation.”

Though many people know what they eat when they order chicken or steak at a restaurant, Skerry said, he wonders if people realize what they are eating when they order fish.

“These are animals that have no terrestrial counterpart,” he said. “There’s nothing like them on the planet.”

If humans did not catch so many fish, such as bluefin tuna, the tuna would have time to live to be 30 years old. The case is similar for other fish.

“These are animals that were revered by cavemen. They were painted on cave walls, and philosophers like Plato wrote about them,” he said. “And today, they’re on the verge of extinction because of this lust for sushi.”

One of Skerry’s photos showed several bluefish carcasses stacked up at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. While he was wandering the market, Skerry said, it occurred to him the ocean is not a grocery store.

For the story, he also wanted to look into fish harvesting methods and the shark fishing industry, which kills about 100,000 sharks per year.

Skerry said he was not sure if people had a grasp on how fish are harvested. One common method is bottom trawling, or dragging a net along the ocean floor. It catches both the intended species and anything in the net’s path, he said. In Mexico, a bottom trawl was used to catch shrimp. Skerry took a photo of fishermen throwing the other dead animals back into the ocean.

The cover photo of the story was a thresher shark caught in a net at the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The shark’s pectoral fins reminded Skerry of a crucifixion. His challenge was to take a photo that would resonate with readers, who often think of sharks as creatures that should be feared, he said.

Skerry has also worked on several stories about endangered species, including hammerhead sharks, whose population has declined by 89 percent in the past 20 years, he said. It is unknown where they migrate or where they mate.

“We’re losing them faster than we’re saving them,” he said. “This is, again, part of what we’re trying to do with photography, is to give some sense of what these animals are and why they need to be learned about.”

The leatherback sea turtle’s lineage dates back about 100 million years, making the turtles older than dinosaurs, Skerry said. But the leatherbacks are also on the verge of extinction.

Hunters have also driven both southern and northern Atlantic right whales close to extinction. Southern right whales have been able to rebound, because they live farther from human industrialization, Skerry said. But only 400 north Atlantic right whales remain, because they live just miles off the East Coast. They must deal with pollution, becoming entangled in fishing gear and getting struck by ships.

But despite the many stories about the environmental problems of the ocean, there is a silver lining. After Skerry’s global fish crisis story was published in 2007, he worked on one about the value of marine reserves.

During a trip to New Zealand, Skerry met with Bill Ballantine, a scientist who convinced the New Zealand government to create a marine protected area around Goat Island in 1972.

Ballantine told Skerry he expected fish on the verge of extinction to return. But there were also unexpected results. New Zealand snappers, which ate sea urchins, were extinct. That let sea urchins eat all the kelp around them. When the area became protected, fish came back and controlled the sea urchin population, which allowed the kelp to emerge again. No one knew there was kelp in the area, Skerry said.

When Ballantine originally had the idea of a marine reserve in New Zealand, people assumed there would be nothing left to do because they would not be allowed to fish, Skerry said. The area used to see 3,000 people, but now 300,000 people visit per year.

People need a connection with nature, Skerry said, and that message is clear.

“Nature is resilient and tolerant to a point,” he said, “but we must listen. We must see, and we must act.”

Photo by Lauren Rock.


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What are photographic ethics? You mentioned you can’t get too close. I don’t know how much you can enhance.

A: The question was in terms of photographic ethics. I think we’re talking about the post-production aspect, because with digital photography today, there can be a lot of manipulation. I can tell you that National Geographic is extremely pure about that. They have very strict standards. In terms of digital photography, if we’re shooting digitally, we have to shoot in what’s called the raw format, which is the purest form — it has the most information. I have to shoot in sequence, I’m not allowed to delete any photographs in the field, and I have to deliver every single photograph on a hard drive to my editor. On a typical story these days, I might shoot 30,000 or 40,000 pictures, of which we only publish 10 or 12. But my editor will go through every one of those 30,000 to 40,000 pictures. In terms of correction, the only thing that’s allowed is color correction and contrast, because a digital photo comes out of the camera kind of flat, and sometimes they have a bit of a cast to them. So we will sit with the engineer in the engraving department at the magazine and make sure the colors are accurate. But we won’t make them totally crazy or wacked-out. They have to be very pure. And then there’s three levels of checks. My editor will look at the raw file and the corrected one, the director of photography will do that, and the director of the layout and design department. If they think that anything is too much, then they’ll back off. It’s really just color correction and contrast and no manipulation. We won’t take out something or put something in. It’s very pure. With Geographic, it’s been said that you can put quotes around the photos, and I think that’s true.

Q: When you’re taking pictures of animals in pain, how do you not interfere?

A: I have an ethic for myself that says that if the animal is being harmed or stressed by natural situations — like the little leatherback that’s being eaten by a vulture — although I may want to interfere, I won’t, because that’s natural, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If I see an animal that is in stress because of anthropogenic stresses, because of humans — a turtle with plastic around its head or monofilament or a hook in its mouth — if I can help it, if it’s being impeded, I will try to interfere there. But journalistically, I have to walk a careful line, because we can’t interfere with nature, and I can’t just swim into every fisherman’s net, either, and cut them out. I have to be a journalist. There is a delicate balance, so that’s where I draw the line.

Q: If you could correct one misconception about the ocean, what would it be?

A: If I could correct one misconception about the ocean, it would be that it is not vast and limitless. I think, in times past, that might have been the case to our ancestors, but today, we know that the oceans are far from limitless and full of bounty. Fishing technology has gotten so great that the fish honestly don’t have a chance. They’re using NASA satellites to look at the temperature variations in the ocean, and they know that the best fishing is going to happen on the edge of cold and warm currents. And you can see these as clearly as looking at a newspaper. Fishermen will go there, and they know exactly when the fish are going to spawn so that the big aggregations are there. I think there’s still this perception that the ocean is endless and has this limitless bounty, but that’s far from the truth.

Q: Do you write the text with your photos? And if not, how does that happen?

A: I did write all the text in the book. At the magazine, the way it typically works is if I propose a story and it becomes approved, then they assign a writer. We have a great writer, Don Belt, in the audience today who will be speaking here tomorrow. The photographer and the writer will work together on the story and often overlap in the field as well. With my book, with Ocean Soul, I wanted it to be my own personal story, so I wrote about 23,000 words of the stories behind the photos and my life in the fields. With Ocean Soul, I wrote it myself.

Q: Do countries need to extend their 200-mile territorial limit to protect sea life or would that just invite further abuse by some countries?

A: Countries have a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. I suppose, on one hand, it would certainly allow those countries who are willing to do the right thing in terms of protection to protect parts of the ocean that are not currently protected, so that would be a good thing. But I think it’s probably unrealistic that that’s going to happen. It’s more realistic that we can try to get some sort of constituency and some sort of agreement on how to protect the high seas, which are sort of the “wild West” these days, and there are things happening out there which are not so good for wildlife. There are some high seas marine-protected areas under proposal, and we’ll see what happens. There’s one in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda that’s being looked at right now, and some other places. I think that going down that road is probably more likely.

Q: Don’t be modest. How has your work in photography had a direct impact on preserving our oceans?

A: It’s hard to measure some of these things. Some examples would be that with right whales, there had been legislation sort of languishing in the United States Congress that wasn’t going anywhere. After the right whales story came out, Congress moved to pass protection for right whales in critical habitats. In places where mothers and calves hang out, like off of Florida, ships have to slow their speeds coming through there so there’s not as many ship strikes occurring in those places. I can’t take credit for that; it’s really the work of the scientists. The scientists say that the article helped move that legislation along. George W. Bush enacted some of these marine-protected areas — including Kingman Reef. Enric actually said that he was talking to some of the White House staffers around that time and brought in the story with my photographs to show just how beautiful Kingman Reef was and why it needed protection. Again, it’s a collaborative effort between the scientists and the photographer. The president of Chile last year asked for that photo of the shark crucifixion picture. Those are the kinds of things that I do think have some sort of substantial impact.

Q: What is the most dangerous situation you’ve ever had while diving?

A: I’ve had my share of dangerous moments over the years. On the radio show this morning, I talked about how I’ve been trapped under arctic pack-ice for a few moments, not able to find my exit. I’ve been grabbed by Humboldt squid — this very scary sea monster with 24,000 teeth on its arms. I had a boat sink on me once in Canada during a blizzard. I came up from a dive and I saw the boat listing and I said “Oh, just a bad list from my angle.” And then I saw the captain leap into the ocean with a survival suit. That wasn’t a good sign. I was doing a story on marine life of Ireland a few years ago. I was diving on the west coast of Ireland, and I came up from a dive and me and my assistant, Sean — the boat never saw us. There was a big Atlantic swell and the sun was at our backs, so they never saw us. We ended up drifting for about two and a half hours. We got picked up by a fishing boat eventually, so that was a little dicey. There’s these moments, but I would definitely emphasize that for the handful of dicey moments, there’s countless fantastic experiences, and the good far outweighs the bad.

Q: Where have you not been, and why do you want to go there?

A: There’s many, many places. Believe it or not, Africa is one of them. I haven’t yet worked in Africa. I’ve had a story approved on the Rift Valley lakes, but we’ve put it on the back burner at Geographic, so I’ll get to go there sometime in the near future. Actually, I’m doing a new story on tiger sharks, and I think one of the locations will be South Africa. So that’ll hopefully happen soon.

—Transcribed by Sydney Maltese