Questions for a National Geographic Underwater Photographer

For thirty years, Brian Skerry has explored the planet’s oceans, publishing his findings frequently in National Geographic. He's captured some of the most fascinating creatures under water, including whales the size of metro buses, Leatherback sea turtles and Tiger sharks. But his work has also led him to witness devastating problems like overfishing and marine degradation from pollution. In January, Skerry arrives in Seattle to present Ocean Soul, the first in the five-part lecture series National Geographic Live.

Seattle Mag: Tell us about your most recently published book Ocean Soul.

Brian Skerry: I’ve been taking pictures for over 30 years, but most of what’s in the book is from the last decade or so. It represents a very personal story and the evolution of my career. In the beginning I just wanted to make pretty pictures of animals and places, but over time I saw a lot of problems in the world’s oceans. Now my work is a blend of the two; celebratory photographs along with a narrative thread that explores some of the harder-hitting issues.

Our city council just proposed a city-wide ban on plastic bags, in part to help protect marine environments. How important are changes like this?

Plastics are one of the most deadly things for the ocean. There are 3 to 5 great gyres (areas where currents create a whirlpool effect) in today’s oceans where the currents have aggregated huge amounts of plastics. A lot of these materials get broken down to a molecular level, but they never disappear. Instead, they create a toxic plastic soup which is ingested by animals and causes negative consequences we aren’t yet able to imagine. What’s worse is that it is happening even in some of the most remote places on earth. I remember hiking on a remote island in Honduras and coming onto a beach where I had to wade through a pool of plastic and garbage that was up to my calves.

What other changes are you seeing?

Only a fraction of one percent of our oceans is protected. But right now is a very exciting time; people are starting to get the message. There’s almost an arms race among some countries to create bigger and better marine conservation areas, like the UK’s Marine Conservation Zone Project. But we need more information and as a photojournalist, I hope I can inspire more of that.

How do you balance your role as a journalist with your love of the oceans when witnessing some of the atrocities you cover?

It’s very hard. I do work diligently to use journalistic impartiality, but I can’t avoid having opinions on many of the things that I see. My policy is that if I see something that is disturbing, but natural, I’ll leave it alone. When I was in Honduras studying Leatherback turtles, I watched as hungry vultures picked off baby turtles heading from the beach to the ocean. It was hard to watch, but it was a natural process and I let it happen. But, while working on the same story in Trinidad, I followed a fisherman who frequently caught turtles in his nets by accident. One night, while riding with him, I saw a turtle caught in a net and with his permission, I cut it free. It was a man-made disturbance and I had the fisherman’s permission to do it, so I felt OK about that. It’s something I have to judge, but in most cases I have to look through the viewfinder and remain detached.

Can you give us clues about future projects you’re working on?

I’m working on six new stories right now for National Geographic. At least two or three are scheduled to get published in the next year or so. One is on the Mesoamerican reef, which is the world’s second largest reef and stretches through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Another is on aquaculture and the solutions it may have for our overfishing epidemic.

Tell us about your upcoming presentation at Benaroya Hall.

With the lecture I have the opportunity to show additional pictures and I can talk a little bit more about the kinds of things that motivate me photographically. I want to help convince people of the importance of our world’s oceans. Especially those people who may not live near the ocean or feel a connection to it. Our oceans are so important. They make up 98 percent of the biosphere. Four out of every five breaths come from the ocean. To call our planet Earth is wrong; it’s really Oceana and I want to inspire that feeling in other people.

Brian Skerry presents Ocean Soul January 29 - 31 at Benaroya Hall. Times vary. $17. Benaroya Hall; 200 University St.; 206.215.4747;

Series tickets are on sale now and are good for the entire National Geographic Live! Series, which continues through May and includes four other speakers covering a variety of global issues. Tickets for individual presentations go on sale December 1.