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Field Notes
Brian Skerry
Photograph by Mark Conlin
Brian Skerry
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was your best experience during this assignment?

Each of the protected areas I photographed in New Zealand was spectacular. But one stood out: the fiords of South Island, where I witnessed a phenomenon I hadn't seen before. Under the snowcapped mountains of Fiordland National Park, freshwater streams empty into the saltwater fiords, creating a unique ecosystem. This is a heavily wooded park, so the water in the streams is stained with tannin, a substance found in plants that makes clean water seem dirty, though it isn't. Being lighter, this "dirty" water actually floats atop the saltwater in the fiords. When I dived through it, I often couldn't see my hand in front of my face. But then suddenly I'd break through into the crystal-clear saltwater some 20 or 25 feet (six or eight meters) below, and it was like Dorothy coming into Oz. It took my breath away. A murky world of black and white instantly turned the most brilliant emerald green. Apparently, this was a filtering effect of the tannic acid in the fresh water above.

I was even more astounded by the life-forms I found in these relatively shallow waters. These strange physics trick creatures, such as black corals—which normally live very deep in the water—into coming closer to the surface. All in all, the dives I made in Fiordland were some of the best I've ever made.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

Poor Knights Island, off the northern peninsula of New Zealand's North Island, was important to this story because it's one of the great success stories in marine conservation. The abundance of life in this protected area is so overwhelming that I'd scheduled 12 days to photograph it. But you can't just jump in the water and make great National Geographic pictures. It takes time to set up one's gear and get oriented. Some bad weather at the beginning delayed things, but in due time everything started working and I was getting pictures of the abundance of what I call the primal ocean, with huge schools of fish in great motion and light. Then, just as I was hitting my stride, pow! Along comes a huge storm, with gale-force winds, and my bonanza was over three days early. Despite the great pictures I did get, this was a big disappointment for me. One could dive for months off this island and still not see it all.

What was the oddest experience you encountered during this assignment?

This was a case where time warp meets culture shock. After two flights, separated by a layover in San Francisco, I arrived in Auckland on New Year's Eve 2005, virtually without sleep for 36 hours. Without even a nap, I then went to a New Year's Eve party at a place called Goat Island. At midnight—and two days without sleep—I was feeling almost hallucinatory as I greeted the New Year with a glass of wine while pondering the Southern Cross up there in the New Zealand sky. At my side was a guy who ran tours with glass-bottom boats. He was telling me how a huge killer whale had appeared under his boat that afternoon, to everyone's delight. In my head, I was still back in Boston, asking myself, Where am I?