Published: October 2008
Brian Skerry
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

Right whales don’t seem like the easiest subjects to photograph. What challenges did you face photographing them?

I knew it was going to be a challenge with the North Atlantic right whale. The whales are critically endangered and are protected in the United States so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into the water with them. I also knew it would be especially challenging because these are 45-foot, 70-ton animals. When they come to the surface you’re seeing just a small piece of them—the tops of their heads or maybe a tail. They’re such bizarre-looking creatures to begin with that even when you know what you’re looking at, you’re like, Where’s the eye? Where’s the mouth?

What was your plan once you found out you couldn’t get into the water with them?

The idea was to photograph the surface pictures and the issues—ship strikes and entanglement—for the North Atlantic population, and then I would get the underwater pictures of the southern right whales down in the Auckland Islands in New Zealand.

What was it like to be in the water with a 45-foot, 70-ton animal?

I’ve been diving for about 30 years, and I can honestly say that I’ve had some amazing encounters with sharks, squids, and other whales. But the encounter with the right whales in the Auckland Islands was probably the best thing I’ve ever done. It was just that amazing.

What made it so amazing?

We sailed into this place called Sandy Bay, into reasonably shallow water—maybe 50 feet of water. From the moment we got there, the natives swam out to greet us. We had at least half a dozen whales around the boat. These amazingly beautiful, mottled white-and-gray whales came swimming over, looking up at us. They would be half as big as our boat—or twice that size. It was just amazing. I immediately suited up, jumped in—and these city buses swam up to me.

It must have been pretty nerve-racking having such a large animal swim up to you.

It was amazing. I mean, I have to tell you there were days when I was at the bottom at 70 feet, and here comes this bus swimming down. I’m standing on the bottom, and as it comes down, I get on my knees, lean over backwards—my scuba tank is now digging into the sand. And of course their eyes are on the side of their heads, so it had to turn and look at me. It came within inches. Here’s this softball-size whale eye looking at me. But then it stops—stops on a dime. It’s just hovering there, and literally one flick of its tail, and it would have crushed me like a bug. But it doesn’t. It was just highly curious.

Were they all like that—curious?

They were highly curious. They would come within inches of me—not every day and not every whale. One dive I was swimming alongside this huge whale, kicking as hard as I can to keep up—it doesn’t appear to be moving very fast, but it’s still hard to maintain that speed as a human being. So I’m kicking and kicking and breathing like a freight train. This particular day I was using a new dry suit, so the neck seal was tight, and I could feel the artery in my neck pumping and my heart pounding in my chest. I’m thinking, Nobody’s going to believe this—I’ve got to get this picture! I tried to keep up with it as long as I could, but I had to take a break, so I stopped and kneeled down on the bottom. Instead of continuing, the whale stops and turns and waits for me. It was like a dog that was following me around. After a while it would get bored and go back up to the surface, so I would ascend to kind of remind it that I was still around. It would see me, and I’d go back down—and sure enough, the whale would follow me. It was like swimming around with a friend.

So you never felt in danger being around them?

There was a day when I was in the water column all alone, and the visibility wasn’t so good, and I couldn’t really see what was happening. This whale comes over and was doing these big circles around me. And I’m following the action, when all of a sudden—boom! I get bumped in my shoulder. I turn, and there is another right whale literally right by my shoulder checking me out. So I’m between these two 45-foot buses, which easily could have crushed me. I mean, the callosities—the rough parts of skin that a right whale has—are like cement. When the whales are three feet or four feet away from you, one gentle lift of its head, and it would be like being hit by a sidewalk. That never happened. They were just highly curious and wanted to know what I was about.

How were you able to make pictures of a 45-foot animal underwater?

I typically shoot underwater with my regular camera in an underwater housing, and then I usually have two big strobes that I use to light. But with whales, you’re not going to be able to really light a 45-foot subject. Your strobes are only effective for maybe five or six feet underwater. Some of the pictures in the first few days I was able to light the face of a whale if it came in close, but I ended up for the most part ditching the strobes and shooting available light. That meant I had to shoot at very high speeds, ISOs of 800, which did not offer the best resolution—it tends to be a little noisy or grainy. But it was what I had to do to get pictures, because there was never a lot of light. You know, in the sub-Antarctic in the wintertime the sun never gets very high in the sky, and even if it did, most of the days were so cloudy you didn’t get much light filtration.

Do you have a favorite photograph?

The one that initially comes to mind is the picture of one of these whales swimming over the bottom at a depth of about 70 feet with my assistant standing on the bottom. It’s so unusual. Most whale photos you see show whales in this beautiful blue water—it’s almost like space. To see a whale that big in perspective with a human was cool. I asked my assistant to dive with me on that day just for that reason. We were standing on the bottom in very cold water—40, 39 degrees—and we’re down at 70 feet and this 45-foot, 70-ton whale glides across the bottom. My assistant is just dwarfed next to this thing. I think that the perspective and the whole man-whale interaction—that is a special photograph.