This story appears in the October 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
For underwater photographer Brian Skerry, there are good days. The sun shines, the water’s clear, the surface is calm, the whales come, and Skerry can slip into the ocean fast enough to photograph them as his mask stays unfogged and his camera doesn’t malfunction.
But most days aren’t like that. The whales don’t show up, or there are particles in the water, or wind roils the waves, or the sun dips behind a cloud at the worst moment. Or, as soon as Skerry gets in the water, the whales dive several thousand feet to feed, and he can chase them only as far as one breath will take him.
A National Geographic photography fellow and the 2017 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year, Skerry free dives—which means no scuba tanks, no buoyancy device, no equipment except his fins, mask, and camera. Over the past two years he’s spent nine weeks off the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica in a 30-foot boat chasing sperm whales around their warm-water habitat.
Skerry captures images that are unique, memorable, and award winning—but he has a higher ambition. As “a photojournalist first and foremost, I work with researchers and provide them with photographs that are useful” in their study of ocean flora and fauna, he says.
Sperm whales are majestic, intelligent, and maddeningly elusive, escaping to ocean depths when pursued or spooked. Still, their ranks have been thinned by whaling, overfishing, and other contact with humans, to the point that the world’s conservationists assess them as either vulnerable or endangered. Skerry wants his photos to inform the scientific research and education efforts that will bring whales more attention and potentially some relief. “I feel a sense of responsibility and urgency to make people care” about the marine giants, he says. “I want to give them, for lack of a better word, some humanity.”
Scientists know sperm whales as the ocean’s largest toothed predators. They have the biggest brains of any known animal, can weigh up to 45 tons, and have been observed displaying humanlike qualities, such as curiosity and playfulness. But despite their size and their expressiveness, sperm whales remain one of the ocean’s biggest mysteries. Do they share complex ideas? What are the dynamics in their family groups? And what goes on in those giant brains?
Almost all whales appear to be disturbed by loud sounds. A boat’s motor or a scuba system’s bubbles can interfere with the animal’s click-based communication system. Free diving, the underwater equivalent of tiptoeing, is the best way for a professional like Skerry to approach them. Still, he says, “sometimes it’s like chasing ghosts.”
Skerry lives in Maine, where he practices free diving in cold Atlantic waters, slowing his breathing sometimes for up to three minutes. Holding one’s breath is as much the work of the mind as it is the lungs. In addition to staying in good physical shape, Skerry, 56, does meditation exercises to condition himself not to panic when his blood pressure drops and his lungs scream out. It’s often in those moments when photographic magic happens. Skerry is partway through a three-year story project on whales for National Geographic. It has taken him all over the world: to Alaska to photograph humpbacks, to Canada for belugas, and to Norway for orcas. In each location, the conditions are punishing in their own way, and subject to whale-size shifts of fortune.
In Dominica, Skerry followed a research team led by Shane Gero, a biologist at Denmark’s Aarhus University and founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. Each year Gero’s team tracks families of Caribbean sperm whales to try to decode their communication. The research contributes to a broader understanding of whale behavior, which can influence human activity and conservation strategies to help populations rebound.
Collecting data, however, is slow work. Like other wildlife photographers, Skerry talks a lot about patience, as though that’s enough to land a masterful shot. But only when in the boat with him is it possible to understand the mental gymnastics required to wait, trigger ready, for weeks at a time—knowing that the moment may never come. And yet, every so often, Skerry has not just a good day but an epic one.
One day last spring, after a string of fruitless weeks, Skerry got a tip from a research boat that a pod of whales appeared to be moving toward the surface to socialize. Such behavior is rare for people to witness, let alone photograph. Skerry raced to the site and found six sperm whales under sunny skies. He swam with them for more than an hour, filling two memory cards with 1,500 images. Nature often has good reason to frown on humans—but sometimes it smiles anyway.
Longtime National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry is the 2017 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year. Rolex and National Geographic have formed a partnership to promote conservation and exploration of Earth’s wonders. Learn more at natgeo.com/perpetualplanet.