Brian Skerry has been a photographer and diver for nearly 30 years. But when asked to describe a moment when he knew his photos could make a difference, he mentions the harp seal pups (Pagophilus groenlandicus).
Originally planned as a natural history story focusing on the harp seals’ annual journey to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Skerry was excited about the beautiful imagery he’d have to work with – stunning sheets of pack ice on which the seals “court, mate and, if pregnant, have their pups.”
He wanted to photograph both above and below the sub-freezing water – a tricky environment and new challenge. But he was well-prepared for the job.
On the Ground, In the Field
As a photojournalist, Skerry specializes in telling stories set in marine and other underwater environments. He has won numerous awards, serves as an assignment photographer for National Geographic Magazine, is a Fellow with CI-partner the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) and typically travels eight months a year.
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As he began researching the harp seal story, Skerry quickly realized two things. First, that the harp seal hunt hadn’t ended in the 1980s as so many people believed it had.
“In truth,” he says, the hunt “had switched from killing the newly born ‘white coats’ to killing ‘beaters’” (weeks-old pups with mottled gray fur that “beat” the water when they swim). He adds, “It’s the biggest mass slaughter of marine mammals on the planet.”
“The bigger issue,” he continues, “was that global warming was having a substantial impact on pup mortality. I took aerial pictures that showed the ice pack – at a time when most of the Gulf was historically frozen solid – was much thinner, and there was much more open water. So the pups, who already wean in twelve short days, are forced into icy water too soon, without enough insulation.”
He explains that they were “simply not ready to fend for themselves. Pups were dying.”
The Climate Change Connection
Although the IUCN Red List currently classifies harp seals as of Least Concern, it also acknowledges that climate change is affecting seal habitats, and that a reassessment will soon be required. Skerry sought to create photos that could alert the public to both issues, camera in hand.
He names one moment in particular: A “pup so young you could still see its umbilical cord, its mother frantically pushing it up to the surface to catch a breath.”
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When the story was published, those images had a powerful effect, and clarified the ways in which images could bring complex issues to light. “We need great science, but we also need great images,” he says. “The combination is what’s so powerful.”
Skerry’s Wide Lens
Accordingly, he works hard to get those images out, and has been featured in People, Sports Illustrated, US News and World Report, BBC Wildlife, Smithsonian, Playboy, Esquire, Audubon, Outdoor Life, GEO, Maxim, Men’s Journal and numerous others worldwide.
And although he insists that there are “so many incredible places I love,” to photograph, he names New Zealand as the top of his list.
He points out that “currently, less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s oceans is truly off-limits, but that New Zealand is a leader in this respect, protecting their coastline, marine landscapes and fisheries. “When you dive in these places,” he says, “you see an ecosystem that’s coming back.”
“In 30 years of diving (in New Zealand), I’ve been privileged by amazing encounters with all kinds of species, from turtles and dolphins to seals, tuna and squid.” But it was in the remote, sub-Antarctic waters off the Auckland Islands (about 560 kilometers [or 350 miles] south of New Zealand’s South Island) in wintertime where one of his most awe-inspiring experiences took place.
“I was near the bottom when up swam a nearly 14-meter (45-foot), 70 ton whale who had probably never seen a human underwater before,” he says, his voice bright. “To have that ‘submarine’ swim up with such curiosity was truly mind-blowing. Being in the presence of a whale like that, that was as curious about me as I was about it, that was the best.”
It’s the kind of natural wonder so many conservation photographers like Skerry are trying to convey and protect.
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