National Geographic Magazine’s Brian Skerry shared his experiences in the sea through his work as a photojournalist on Feb. 19 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts. Skerry has worked for National Geographic for over 20 years and typically spends eight to nine months out of the year traveling to investigate the ocean and its marine life.
In his talk, Skerry provided prime examples of how photographs can make a lasting difference in the efforts to save our troubled oceans. His photographs bring to light the consequences of our actions on the environment, specifically in regards to the world’s oceans. Thus, his images have influenced the position of policymakers, resulting in legislation to preserve marine life areas, creating countless positive impacts for the future of many animal species.
Skerry explained how the ocean holds great potential for discovery, with about 95 percent of the deep ocean remaining unexplored. Due to this mystery, Skerry emphasizes that you cannot predict what you will encounter on any given day on or in the water. He constantly searches for special moments underwater that he can capture, which in turn may compel people to want to know more information. Skerry frames himself as more of an artistic interpreter instead of a scientist, as his goal is to capture the rhythm and unique qualities that exist among nature.
Skerry began his talk by delving into his most successful stories as an ocean explorer among the beauty of wildlife. Skerry strongly believes that it is in our best interest to protect our oceans, and one of the ways we may accomplish this is through exploration. By investigating the water world photographically, Skerry has experienced a lifetime journey of discovery and has spent as much time as he can underwater peeling back its layers of mystery. Throughout his career, he has learned of the struggles that these animals and ecosystems in the oceans face.
“There really has been an evolution in my career, in my work in the sense that over those years I began to see a lot of problems occurring in the world’s oceans, things that may not be evident to most people. As a journalist, I felt a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to turn my camera towards those issues to tell a more complete story and to hopefully work towards solutions,” Skerry said.
Skerry has covered stories on endangered species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, of which there are only about 400 left today. These animals suffer from side effects from humans that include being struck by ships, getting tangled in fishing gear, as well as dealing with pollution.
He also investigated the living situations of harp seals, which reside in the Arctic. In attempting to take pictures of these animals above and below the ice, Skerry discovered that the decline of sea ice as a result of climate change has had a negative impact on these seals attempting to reach a stable platform. Pups easily fall through the slushy ice and unfortunately drown, which has drastically increased the pup mortality rate. While the future of this species remains unclear, Skerry’s work has brought awareness concerning its status of survival. This became a cover story in 2004 for National Geographic, and as a result, drew a large amount of attention.
“I’ve also come to learn that humans are especially visual creatures. We respond emotionally to powerful images, which can stay with us for our entire lives and that can be a very powerful tool to get people to care about things that we believe are important,” Skerry said.
Skerry’s work with the harp seals inspired his desire to pursue more environmental issues through which he began to investigate the crisis of overfishing. The degradation of the species of fish within our oceans has been heavily influenced by factors such as a seemingly universal lust for sushi. Skerry’s goal was to put a face on seafood with his pictures and hopefully invoke some inquiry among seafood consumers.
In regards to bluefin tuna, Skerry said “this is an animal that continues to grow its entire life. If we weren’t so efficient at catching them they would be thirty-year-old bluefin out there in time. We are way too good at catching them.” Essentially, Skerry believes the ocean should not be treated as a grocery store. By taking the ocean’s wildlife at unsustainable levels, it will begin to collapse. By raising awareness through his pictures, Skerry has made considerable progress in calling attention to the need of preserving marine areas.
Audience members found Skerry’s words to be particularly profound. Kathleen Smith ’21 said, “I found it really relatable as one who enjoys underwater photography and who has been fortunate enough to snorkel in a lot of remarkable and unique places. I like how he captures things in order to get people to care more about these animals.”
Skerry believes there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of our oceans and wildlife. By encouraging the creation of more marine protected areas, we will help the environments recover by leaving them alone. The resilience of nature has proved to be impressive, but Skerry explained that we must change our ways before it is too late. Many look forward to the amazing discoveries Skerry has yet to uncover. Until then, he continues to bring great awareness to the unsatisfactory conditions of our waters by utilizing his photographic talents.