March 15, 2022
Acclaimed Marine Photographer Brian Skerry on Impact, Inspiration, and What You Can Do to Save the World’s Oceans
For nearly four decades, photojournalist, filmmaker and producer Brian Skerry has been capturing the wonders of the deep. A longtime National Geographic photographer and the recipient of countless awards and fellowships, he has covered ocean conservation stories on nearly every continent. This month, he’s traveling in support of his book, “Secrets of the Whales,” which was recently adapted into a limited series for Disney+. We caught up with Skerry to talk about what drives his work, why he considers zoos critical to conservation—and what YOU can do to help. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
DZ: What inspired you to become a marine wildlife photographer?
BS: From a young age, I was fascinated with the ocean, and I just dreamed about exploring it. I became a certified SCUBA diver at 15, and initially that was all I wanted to do. But a year or so after that, I attended a diving conference in Boston. Seeing photographers and documentary filmmakers present their work, it was like an epiphany. A light went on in my head and said, “Boy, that's the way I want to explore the ocean—with a camera.”
It was a lofty dream. I didn't have the resources to really do any of those things. But you know, I chipped away at it. I eventually went to college and studied photography, photojournalism and film/television production. Fast forward: I've been working for National Geographic for 24 years. Dreams do come true!
DZ: What type of impact do you hope your photos have on people?
BS: I believe photography can be a very powerful tool to get people to care. We are visual creatures, as humans; we respond emotionally to photographs. We see images that affect us powerfully and make us want to help. And I think the planet, nature, wildlife, the environment —we need those kinds of images to fall in love with the beauty of our planet, but also to understand the problems and solutions facing it.
We live on a water planet. Regardless of where you live on Earth, whether you're in Florida or in Denver, every other breath that a human being takes comes from the sea. With my images, I'm trying to show that even though we are terrestrial creatures and see the world from that terrestrial-centric viewpoint we live on an ocean planet. I'm trying to do a balance of celebratory images to show how beautiful the ocean is, but also that there's no Plan B here.
DZ: You speak about issues related to marine and wildlife conservation—why are these topics important to you?
BS: Ninety-eight percent of Earth's biosphere is water, and we have been destroying it, quite frankly. We have taken 90 percent of the big fish out of the ocean. In the last 60 years, we have lost half the world's coral reefs. We dump 18 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean every year. And we have put so much carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels that we have changed the ocean’s chemistry—it is turning to acid, and eroding all these other things that live in the ocean. It's dying a death of a thousand cuts.
With my work, I want people to be able to appreciate the animals in their own right, but also show people a lot of these problems so we can look towards solutions. I think we're living at a pivotal moment in history where maybe for the first time, humans actually understand both the problems and the solutions—we just need that collective will to move toward those solutions.
DZ: How can individuals be a part of those solutions?
BS: It's daunting to be told to solve our current crises as an individual. But there are things we can all be doing. We can be educated consumers, because the things we choose to buy or not buy can really make a difference. We've wiped out so many species, we're fishing down the food chain.
It helps to have a source that can help you decide what you buy when you go to a grocery store or restaurant, like the Seafood Watch® program. Getting a group together to clean up a local river; eliminating single-use plastics where you can. Those are some things that we can do to sort of feel empowered and less helpless—and that really do have positive impacts.
DZ: What role do you think zoos and aquariums have in the conservation of these species?
BS: I think zoos and aquariums have a monumental role in conservation and education. Zoos and aquariums are really on the forefront of so many conservation efforts, with the Species Survival Plan, keeping endangered species alive, but also funding science and researchers out in the field doing frontline work.
But even the simple display at an exhibit telling guest why this animal is endangered and how they can help is hugely impactful. Zoos are the places that every community goes to, to learn about wildlife—it’s a big responsibility for zoos, and they’ve really stepped up.
Want to see and hear more from Brian Skerry? Catch National Geographic Live at the University of Denver’s Newman Center on Thursday, April 5! Click here to use promo code DZOONAT and save $10 per ticket.
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