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Brian Skerry
Photograph Brian Skerry
Photograph by Mauricio Handler
Field Notes
Interview by Amanda MacEvitt and Glynnis McPhee

How is Kingman Reef different from other reefs where you’ve dived?

I saw sharks on every single dive. I've been diving for 30 years, and I've dived with a lot of sharks in a lot of places. But I've never seen a place, specifically a coral reef environment, where you can find sharks on every single dive.

How many sharks are we talking about?

It wasn't uncommon to have a dozen or 15 sharks swimming around on any given dive—and this was without bait. Typically, if I went to a reef somewhere else in the world, I would have to use bait to induce the sharks to come in close. But in Kingman they were just there.

How did you deal with so many sharks in the water?

It wasn't really necessary to protect ourselves from the sharks. Sharks don't particularly have a great interest in divers. It seemed that in a normal dive, I would jump in the water, and one or two gray reef sharks would swim in and kind of check me out—and then they would keep their distance. So they weren’t particularly threatening or anything to be afraid of. But I would always see them in the background, which was unusual. There were also these large bohar snapper. They’re a highly aggressive reef fish that, along with the sharks, controls all the other fish populations.

Any close calls?

There were a couple of dives where things got a little dicey. On one or two days they were bolder and would swim in close and swirl around, usually at the beginning of the dive. There was one time they came in close to the point where I had to bounce them off my camera. Actually, that might have been when I got the pictures in the magazine. They weren’t biting or showing their teeth; they were just highly curious—unusually so. The bohar snapper—they have these huge canines. I got bit by one. One took a chunk out of my ear—they are much scarier than the sharks.

Did this type of environment—one full of predators—affect how you were able photograph the reef?

I have to admit that from a photographic standpoint it was challenge. I think that most people would associate big schools of fish with healthy coral reefs. At Kingman, the predators keep the herd thin, so there aren’t a lot of big fish schools. I wasn't sure how I was going to relate that it's one of the most pristine coral reefs on Earth.

How did you end up doing that?

I had to look at the place in terms of the coral cover. I had to look at it like a landscape photographer and not try so much to get big fish schools, because those didn't exist. I did portraits of fish—I tried to make sense of them from an individual standpoint. When I would see a fish poking its head out, I’d try to get close, but it would immediately tuck into the reef. I think that's just the natural situation in a place like this, so I had to sort of retrain my eye to photograph the reef in a way that relates to readers. I had to focus on the things that did exist: the predators—the sharks, the snapper.

Is there a particular photographic experience that sticks out in your mind?

For where Kingman is located, the coral cover is unique in the world. I refer to it as a universe of hard corals. You are not going to find soft corals like in the western Pacific—places like Indonesia, Palau, or Fiji. On one particular dive we actually identified a new species, we believe, of coral. I say "we," but it was actually the scientist [Enric Sala]—I was just taking the photographs. We found this unique colony—we refer to it as the “flying saucer.” It’s this huge, round, circular colony of coral that scientists on board, very knowledgeable experts on coral, believe is not yet described in science. It just goes to prove that when you go to these really remote places on the planet there are still new discoveries waiting for you.