This photo appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Learn more about ocean life in Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures, premiering Sunday, January 15th at 7/6c on National Geographic.
Late last summer, President Barack Obama went to Midway Atoll, halfway between California and China in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Why? Because he’d just announced the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a marine reserve encompassing several islands off Hawaii, including Midway. He wanted to help show off the remarkable wildlife he'd just helped protect.
National Geographic photographer and explorer Brian Skerry, who has spent a career taking extraordinary pictures of the oceans, was there. So was I—but Skerry was the lucky one: He got a chance to swim with the president.
What brought you to Midway?
I came as part of this month's magazine assignment, Sea of Change, which uses the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016 as a chance to look toward protecting special ecosystems in America's waters. I was there also as part of a documentary film, Sea of Hope, essentially about the same thing. So I had dual roles: I was there to photograph an interview being done with the president for National Geographic magazine and as a character in the film.
How did you wind up snorkeling with the president?
The idea to go snorkeling—I assume that it was just something that the president wanted to do while he was there. I had arrived on Midway the day before. I had gone out and done a little snorkeling with Dr. Sylvia Earle and the film crew. It was cloudy and we had torrential downpours. But it was, we thought, our only chance to go out on the water.
When Air Force One finally landed on Midway, I was there to photograph it. The back entrance opened up and the press pool came out and all of a sudden there were a lot of reporters and photographers around and I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Pete Souza, the president's personal photographer. He pulled me aside said that he had this invitation for me to go snorkeling with the president.
My mind was racing. My equipment was in pieces in my room in the barracks, and I was thinking, "Oh my god, here's this opportunity and I don't want to screw it up."
I was taken by golf cart to where the interviews were going to take place by the beach with National Geographic. As we're getting ready, the president came over and was putting his microphone on and Souza very nicely said, "Oh Mr. President, I'd like to introduce you to Brian Skerry, one of the world's great underwater photographers." And the president said, "I know who he is, Pete. I'm a great admirer of your work, Brian." Which, of course, blew me away.
You were on one of several boats. Obama was on another. Describe the scene.
These were inflatable boats, with rigid fiberglass hulls, a Zodiac-type boat. There might have been eight people or more on my boat—I don't know who they were. Anyway, so I put on this one-piece jumpsuit skin which I often wear in tropical waters because there are often little stingy things in the water, and you can get chewed up easily. I put that on and a weight belt because I've learned over years of photographing things like dolphins that I want to be a little bit heavy so I can get just below the surface [and] get a more interesting photograph.
I swam over to the boat the president was on. Pete Souza was in the water, too, and said, Just hang out here. So I positioned myself off the port side. And then the president put on a mask, fins, and snorkel and jumped in the water. He took a couple of seconds, and off he went.
You've spent a lifetime shooting marine life. How did this compare?
In some ways the mechanics are very similar. I'd just come off doing a cover story on dolphins, having spent two years working in nine locations around the world. But in your mind you're very much aware that this is not a dolphin. I was trying not to get too close or crowd him. I didn't know what the Secret Service was going to do.
I would try to get close on some occasions. And other times I would back off. It's this unusual dance, in my mind, where I'm thinking of my editors back in the office and how they're not going to accept any sort of excuses. If they know that I was invited to snorkel with the president and came back without a picture, that would be it (laughing).
On the other hand, I have such respect for the presidency, and this was a unique opportunity or experience for me, in my life, that even if I didn't ever get the picture it still would have been very special. So it was this delicate balance of trying to make sure that I got close enough but not so imposing or on top of him that I overstayed my welcome.
I should also add that it was a perfect day. It was sunny and bright and clear skies. So I was making a number of images of the president from the side. And I was starting to feel pretty good. Now I've got something in the can that looked beautiful, the corals were pretty and all of that. But, as any photographer would, you start thinking: How can I improve? I realized nobody would necessarily know it was him unless you told them— I needed something that showed his face, and that's a difficult thing to do—for any diver. You've got a face mask on, so it's hard to identify anybody. I needed a picture where the light was going to illuminate his face, and to do that you'd need to be in front of him or just a little bit off to the side.
And that's one of those situations I couldn't put myself in repeatedly because I would have been blocking his path. He was swimming hard a lot of the time. He was enjoying the workout. If I got in front of him he would have run right into me. So I really had to pick my moment and there were not many. But there was once instance that resulted in the picture we're publishing.
I go back to the dolphin story. You can sometimes anticipate an animal's movements and you try to position yourself in a way that makes the most interesting frame. So I swam ahead of the president and tried to position myself about 15 yards ahead of him at like a 45-degree angle, and I looked underwater and saw that there was a patch of coral that would have been reasonably pretty, and got close enough until ultimately I could get a frame that showed his face.
What was the marine life like? What did you and the president see?
Midway is extraordinary. What I saw were these really beautiful shallow-water coral reefs, this carpet of beautiful pastel colors lit up in the tropical sun. There were parrotfish and angelfish and all the usual tropical reef fish. There were also some invertebrates on the bottom, things like sea cucumbers. I remember the Fish and Wildlife woman chatting with the president about sea cucumbers. We did on one occasion see three monk seals sunning themselves up on the rocks just a little distance away.
There were sandy patches in between the corals where we could stand, and on a number of occasions the president just sort of stopped and stood up and put his mask up on his head and chatted with the Fish and Wildlife representative or me and then went back to snorkeling.
You can never know what's in someone's mind, but for me, it sort of struck me that he was enjoying the freedom of getting a good workout. He seems to be an athletic guy, very fit, a great swimmer. He was hard to keep up with.
What's your takeaway from this experience?
In my own career there's been this evolution. I began just wanting to make beautiful pictures of things that interested me. Animals I thought were cool, places I was interested in traveling to. But over time, I've seen this steady degradation occurring in our oceans, things that aren't evident to most people. As a journalist I have a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to tell those stories.
To be working on this story for most of 2016, and then to have the culmination, the final location, be in this very beautiful place with the president snorkeling over this coral reef that he'd just [protected], creating the world's largest marine protected area, was exceptional. It was brilliant.
It's very satisfying for me, having spent most of my life out there in the ocean, finally seeing these issues resonating at the highest levels among people who can really do something about it and make a difference. I just hope it's not a one-off. I hope we continue.