Out of the Blue

Everything moves to a slow rhythm underwater — the melancholy sway of weeds, specks of silt rocking back and forth in the current. Beneath a blanket of 40-degree seawater half a mile from downtown Rockport, visibility fades within 10 feet into a muck of green brine, a boundless mystery, all of it caught in the grip of ebb and flow. At any moment, some sea monster might glide out of the haze. It might be the dimensions of your fingernail. It could be the size of a coffin.

That's what Brian Skerry is hunting. As the rest of New England quietly greets this crisp dawn, Skerry is scouring the ocean floor, searching for marine life to shoot. He's armed not with a spear gun, but with a $10,000 35 mm SLR camera that resembles a high-tech colonoscopy tool, and 60 pounds of diving gear. I'm following, and so is his assistant, Sean Whelan, a diver at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab, through a maze of mossy rocks and patches of green sea grass.

When Skerry spots a foot-long sculpin resting in a crevice, he stops in his figurative tracks. The fish is reddish brown, with frog eyes, Mick Jagger lips, and sharp, spiny fins. The photographer aims his lens, holding his breath so air bubbles don't scare the fish away. When he hits a button, two 350-watt strobes hurl a net of light into the sea. The camera captures the animal without ever touching it, burning its likeness into a frame of celluloid. The frightened sculpin darts off. But not before Skerry has added it to the list of the thousands of marine animals he's photographed in the past 20 years in New England waters, the creatures that inhabit the mysterious playground human swimmers will begin to crowd into this month.

Skerry's dream growing up in landlocked Uxbridge was to be a National Geographic photographer, he says two hours later, sitting at a table at Blackburn's Tavern in Gloucester. “It was a slow evolution. There were a lot of days when I could've packed it in.” He sips his beer and smiles, the marks from his dive mask still carved into his dark skin, his brown hair combed dry. Skerry gets so excited when he talks about photography, you have the feeling he might pull over a stranger on the way home on the Mass. Pike to tell him about the sculpin he just encountered. “The odds were against me, a billion to one,” he says, “that a kid from Uxbridge could make it in this business. But I kept doing it.”

Skerry started shooting underwater footage in 1978. He crewed on boats out of Rhode Island for years, plunging into the depths in search of his own form of treasure. Since then, he's pumped out three books, including A Whale on Her Own, which documents the true story of a young orphaned beluga whale in Chedabucto Bay in Canada that liked to frolic with humans.

Five years ago, National Geographic signed a 35-year-old Skerry to a contract, and his childhood wish came true. He joined the ranks of the world's greatest team of nature photographers, specializing in “elusive underwater subject matter.”

“It's been a magical experience working with Brian,” says National Geographic illustrations editor Kathy Moran. “It's not just the visuals, but the way he tells stories with pictures. He's becoming one of our top-notch underwater shooters.”

While Skerry won't discuss the three National Geographic projects he's now shooting (one assignment can take years of work), he can speak about the jobs he's completed for that magazine, the Discovery Channel, Sports Illustrated, and others. He's on the road for six months out of the year (not easy for a guy with a wife and a daughter), and his résumé reads like an extensive sushi menu. He's photographed swordfish off Italy, killer whales in the Norwegian Arctic, sperm whales off the Azores. He's shot sea cucumbers, nudibranchs, anemones, any number of wrecks, and more than a dozen species of shark, including blues in New England and great whites off Australia. “No matter how much time you've logged underwater, a great white is incredibly intimidating,” he says. “Their presence overwhelms you.”

Is this kind of work dangerous? Skerry rolls up a pant leg, laughing. He's got a scar on his knee where, as he puts it, he was “stabbed by a German U-boat” — the U-853, a submarine sunk two days before the end of World War IIoff the coast of Rhode Island. The wreck is still there, a capsule filled with 55 dead German sailors.

“I was swimming through the wreck and a sharp piece of metal pierced 5 inches into my knee,” Skerry says.

He's also been “run over by an iceberg” in Canada, lost beneath Arctic pack ice, bitten on the hand by a shark off Newport. But bodily harm is nothing compared to the stress that can creep up on an explorer when things go wrong.

The key to diving is having the nerve to hang lead weights on your body and hurl yourself into the sea. This goes 50-fold for a guy who photographs often in high-risk situations. When you climb into a wreck where there is little light, you might be able to see on the way in. But when you turn around to crawl out, the silt you've stirred up can shrink your visibility to zero. And there you are, submerged, unable to see your own hands, your air running out.

“I was inside the Andrea Doria once,” Skerry says, referring to the 697-foot passenger ship that sank off Nantucket in 1956. “I was feeling my way from room to room at about 210 feet when I realized I was lost. There was zero visibility. When you're in a situation like that, your heart starts racing and you hear that Indiana Jones music playing in your head.”

Divers perish inside wrecks all the time. Two have drowned in the past year off Cape Ann alone. Often, when rescue divers retrieve a corpse from inside a wreck, the scene provides gruesome details about the diver's last moments. Victims sometimes have bloody stumps for fingers because they've tried to claw through a steel bulkhead. Sometimes the diver has torn off his or her equipment in a fit of claustrophobia.

“When you're lost inside a wreck, you try like hell not to panic,” Skerry says. “If you panic, that's it — you're dead.”

He grips his beer and stares off for a moment. Could he be haunted by those moments when mortality stared him in the eye? Hardly. Outside, the ocean beckons. “It's a beautiful day,” Skerry says. “I'm ready to get back in the water.”