printer friendly iconemail a friend icon
Field Notes
Brian Skerry Bahamas
Photograph by Mark Conlin
Brian Skerry

What was one of your best experiences in the field covering this story?

Finding the oceanic whitetip shark. This is one of the most dangerous sharks in the world, but its numbers are declining. It used to be quite common around the Bahamas, but I don't know of anyone who's seen one in years. Anyway, my friend Jim Abernethy got a report from a sports fisherman in the central Bahamas that they were seeing oceanic whitetips when reeling in their tuna. So I set aside 16 days to go searching for them. It was a real gamble because everyone's given up on finding this endangered species.

For the first few days out of Palm Beach we didn't see a thing. Then, on the fifth day, I was up on the bridge looking out and saw a shark appear on the surface. As it got closer, I could see a very prominent white tip on the dorsal fin sticking out of the water—and I knew we had an oceanic whitetip. But was it going to hang around, or just take a look at us and swim off? I quickly suited up and jumped in the water. It came right up to me, this female, about nine feet (three meters) long. She was very curious and stuck close to me for several minutes—until I got back in the boat to put a shark cage in the water for the scientist aboard and to get my cameras. To our good fortune, the shark hung around our boat for a few hours, and I ended up with some great pictures. We only saw two other whitetips during our 16 days, and they didn't stick around. But my prolonged encounter with that first shark—well, that was really the high point of the assignment. Oh yeah.

What was one of your worst experiences in the field covering this story?

It was the last component of the story, almost a year after we'd begun. We were going after the great hammerhead shark. This species is so elusive that there were no pictures of it up until five or six years ago. But I'd heard of a location in the Bahamas where they'd been seen, so I'd budgeted 18 days to find them. For the entire first week we had rough seas and wind, and screaming currents in the water were making it impossible to dive. We did see a couple of hammerheads, but I couldn't get into the water, with those three- to five-foot (one to 1.5 meters) seas. It was very frustrating, and the weather just kept getting worse. On the eighth day we made a run for an island to seek shelter. While there, my assistant, who'd been working with me all through the assignment, called home and learned that his mother was gravely ill back in California. So we had to scramble to get him on a plane and out of the Bahamas.

Suddenly, there I was, surrounded by bad weather and working alone. That was definitely the worst moment in the assignment. In this line of work, it is so important to have a really good assistant with you. Without him there, my workload would more than double. Normally I could stay in my wet suit and have everything handed to me. But now I'd have to continually go topside to clean my own lenses, charge my batteries, and change equipment. Well, as it turned out, I would have a couple days of halfway decent weather. And on one of those days, everything clicked and I got some great pictures of the hammerhead. I was lucky.

What was one of your quirkiest experiences in the field covering this story?

I was in Bimini. There's a shark lab there run by this brilliant scientist, Samuel H. Gruber—known to everybody as "Doc." I'd heard that Doc Gruber was something of an eccentric. Just what a colorful character he really was, I would learn for myself when I went out with him in the mangrove nurseries where he and his researchers tag young sharks with under-the-skin tracking sensors. They do this work at night, patrolling gill nets from sundown until sunup. One night Doc took me with him as he delivered food to his colleagues for their midnight meal. We were in his small Boston Whaler, on our way back to shore, when suddenly he started wailing at the top of his lungs from behind the wheel: "Ma Chérie amour…" From there, he went through an entire repertory of Stevie Wonder songs.

Doc knew only two speeds: stop, and full throttle. At this speed, we could easily have been grounded on a sand flat and thrown over the windshield. Frankly, I was terrified, and the exuberance of Doc Gruber's ad hoc entertainment made everything surreal. But he obviously knew his way across those shallow flats, because there were no mishaps. After Stevie Wonder he treated me to some encores from the Beatles. That was an evening to remember.