Diving Into the Dangers of Underwater Photography

Performances and Artists / National Geographic Live

National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry with whale


Underwater Photographer for National Geographic to Discuss High Points and Challenges of His Career

As a leading underwater photographer for National Geographic, Brian Skerry likes to recall an especially magical moment on the job.

This particular assignment involved so many risks and unknowns, he worried he couldn’t pull it off.

Skerry journeyed to the sub-Antarctic waters near New Zealand, to photograph newly discovered right whales never captured on camera before.

“I got there in the middle of wintertime, in the sub-Antarctic, with the wind blowing and clouds and snow,” Skerry remembers. “I didn’t know how these animals would react (to me).”

A lifelong scuba diver, he submerged himself with no little trepidation.

To Skerry’s amazement, “these 45-foot whales swam over to me, within inches,” he says. “They were curious about me.”

Skerry has experienced a multitude of such spine-tingling adventures throughout his 40 years of exploring the world’s oceans and photographing its wonders.

This includes living at the bottom of the sea in the world’s only underwater science laboratory. He also dived in extreme conditions under arctic ice, and swam inches from the world’s fastest shark.

“I remember (as a kid) being in my parents’ living room looking at the pages of National Geographic magazine, and dreaming of being an adventurer,” he says. “I finally got to do those things I always dreamt about doing.”

Danger Everywhere

Skerry admits his work involves many “Indiana Jones moments” that put his life in danger.

He recalls surfacing from a dive off the Canadian coast, only to see his boat sinking.

During a shoot in Ireland, the crew didn’t see Skerry and his assistant surface, and the pair drifted for hours in the cold, Atlantic waters until a fishing boat rescued them.

“I’ve been nipped by sharks and chased by sperm whales, and been grabbed by a Humboldt squid,” he recalls.

But Skerry doesn’t dwell on these memories.

He feels far more excitement about his many successes bonding with rare and exotic creatures in their underwater habitats.

“Those kinds of moments are the ones I think we should celebrate,” he says.

True Technical Difficulties

Underwater photography poses many challenges, Skerry says.

With color difficult to capture underwater, he juggles underwater strobe lights and additional equipment while trying to document moving creatures.

“I’m physically trying to manage that, and I’m thinking about f-stops and apertures and getting the exposure just right,” he says. “I’m also thinking about the animal. Is it too close? Is it too far away? Am I in a threatening situation?”

These obstacles energize him, rather than deter him.

As photography technology continues to advance, Skerry only sees more possibilities ahead.

“I may have had a wonderful run these past 40 years, but I’m most excited about the next 40,” he says.


National Geographic Live "Ocean Soul | Brian Skerry" takes the stage Saturday, July 16, 2022.


Photo Credit: Brian Skerry