Photograph by Brian Skerry
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An Atlantic bluefin tuna is photographed in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Photograph by Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry: Swimming With Giants

This month National Geographic magazine features an article on bluefin tuna—a super creature being relentlessly overfished—written by Kenneth Brower with photographs by Brian Skerry. Here, Skerry tells of his experience swimming with Atlantic bluefin tuna, and the power of being underwater with these “thoroughbreds of the sea.”

In the dark, chilly waters they materialized—massive beings with large eyes that I knew were watching my every move from deep below long before I ever saw them. The fish were nearly 10 feet in length and several feet thick, weighing around 1,000 pounds, and moved unlike anything else I had seen underwater.

Spinning around in circles I would see them rocket up from the depths, turn on a dime while flashing colors, then disappear back into the gloom. At least a dozen of them swam around me, and I scanned all axes trying to follow their movements. As they passed by I rolled in the wake of their mighty bulk.

Mesmerized by this fluid scene, I forced myself out of the trance I was in and began making pictures, but just kept repeating over and over in my head, “these are perfect oceanic creatures.” They were the creatures that had haunted my dreams and stirred my soul. Feeling at times like Ahab, I’d pursued these animals for almost two decades; a quest not to capture, but to photograph. And finally, I was here, on assignment for National Geographic magazine, tasked with bringing back images of these elusive and enigmatic beasts. I was in the northern realm of the last of the giants. I was swimming with Atlantic bluefin tuna.

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Atlantic bluefin tuna swim in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The tuna gather here in the summer and early fall to feed on oily herring and mackerel.

Although I had found the bluefin, getting to them remained a challenge. It was autumn in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, when easterly winds can whip up the sea into a churning froth of white-capped waves and Novi hulled boats strain on their lines at the dock. Each night I would listen to the howling winds from my pine-paneled bedroom at the B&B and pray it would be calm in the morning and I could return offshore. In my two weeks in this location I had a handful of days when conditions allowed me into the water. Brief encounters to be sure, but very, very special.

To be underwater with a bluefin tuna is to witness the divine sense of nature. They are true thoroughbreds of the sea, with few if any equals. This is an animal that swims across entire oceans in the course of each year and is capable of generating heat that allows it to travel practically from the equator to the poles. With a hydrodynamic design that has been studied by naval engineers, they swim faster than a torpedo and possess physical endurance that we can hardly fathom. It is a warm-blooded fish that continues to grow its entire life—a 30-year-old bluefin can weigh more than a ton—though as far as we know, none reach that age these days due to overwhelming fishing pressure.

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A bluefin tuna swims along the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A voracious predator, the bluefin feeds mainly on small fish, crustaceans, and squid. But it is also pursued relentlessly by humans for raw dishes because of its buttery meat.

Photographically, they were more challenging to capture than any other subject I’ve shot. Their highly reflective bodies were like fast swimming mirrors, and the exposure range between the surface waters and the water just a few feet below was as much as 5 f-stops. Staring through my viewfinder, I slipped into “the zone” and pulled from my more than thirty years of experience with marine wildlife. I tried to anticipate the tuna’s movements, calculating when they would rocket upwards and where they would turn. I adjusted my body position to be less threatening and willed them close enough to fill the frame.

Though my quest was fulfilled, my soul still stirs. I muse about their wanderings, their epic journeys through deep Atlantic canyons and migrations along ancient highways to spawning grounds. For me, swimming with bluefin tuna was once only a dream. But with this experience my dreams are now enhanced—painted with flashes of silver and yellow and blue—and are of being underwater again and staring into that haunting, vigilant, bluefin eye.

Read the article and view more of Skerry’s photos of bluefin tuna in the March issue of National Geographic.

See more of Skerry’s work on his website, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.