Q+A: Brian Skerry, National Geographic Photographer

Wanderlust and a love of the ocean spurred Uxbridge native Brian Skerry, 50, to become an undersea photographer. He’s been shooting shipwrecks and creatures big and small in the watery depths for 35 years (and for the last 14 years, he’s been on assignment for National Geographic).

Ocean Soul, a collection of his stunning whale and seal portraits and kaleidoscopic photos of tropical fish and coral, came out Tuesday. Skerry will stop by the New England Aquarium — where he’s currently the explorer-in-residence — at 5 p.m. tonight to discuss the book and sign copies.

We chatted over the phone yesterday about the environment, changing camera technology, and of course, sharks.

In the intro to Ocean Soul, you write that “days spent on the beaches of Rhode Island, Cape Cod, and New Hampshire were a taste of something magical, an unusual blend of adventure, mystery, and calm that stirred my soul and sealed my fate.” Did you always know that you wanted to be an ocean explorer? What drew you to the sea?

As a young boy, I was very interested — as I still am — in all sorts of adventure and exploration. I thought about being an astronaut, a dinosaur scientist, or marine biologist, but I clearly was drawn to the ocean and to the water.

And, I’m not sure I can fully explain it, other than to say that I think there is some sort of an innate desire — a tidal force, to use the pun — that draws some people to the ocean. It certainly was the case with me. I think that going to the beach as a child, being in the water and smelling that salt air and hearing the seagulls, it had a real calming effect. But also, it was a mysterious thing — I remember wondering what was under those dark New England seas.

I finally became a scuba diver at age 15 or so, and a couple of years after that, I attended a dive show that is held every year in Boston. It’s the oldest one in the world and it’s still going on — it’s called the Sea Rovers. I was sitting in the audience, this kid watching the documentary filmmakers and photographers present their work … I love storytelling, I love being a visual person, and it just made perfect sense to be an underwater photographer and explore the ocean and work with scientists.

You started your career photographing New England waters. How did that prepare you for later assignments at National Geographic?

New England waters are some of my favorite — they are some of the richest waters because they are temperate waters and nutrient-rich, and therefore provide food for so many animals, from giant whales to sharks to everything else. But they are cold waters and rough waters — if you’re walking in off a beach, it can be sort of a rough beach entry. You’ve got to be a hearty New Englander to dive up here. I always remember my diving instructors telling me, if you can dive here, you can dive anywhere in the world.

I worked on a charter boat with a guy out of Rhode Island for about 10 years, and we would take people out to dive shipwrecks and German U-Boats that were down in 130 to 160 feet of water. You’re diving with dry suits and heavy double tank, and you really have to become a pretty good diver. So, I think that experience really did prepare me both as a diver and a photographer, because during that period, I was also making photographs, crawling through German U-Boats and old shipwrecks and trying to make photographs of the things I saw. The conditions were sometimes really challenging — there was silt and it was dark and there wasn’t much ambient light. I learned how to make pictures in those difficult conditions.

You’ve been doing this for 35 years — how has underwater photography changed?

When I first started, I was using a Nikonos camera, a specialty camera that Nikon was making. It was an amphibious camera that you could take underwater but it was somewhat primitive. You couldn’t see through the lens; it was basically an old range-finder type of camera. You just had to point and shoot. It was a 35mm camera and the optics were good, but you put one little roll of film in this tiny little camera and you couldn’t really see what you were shooting. You only had 36 frames and then you were done.

Today, I’m shooting regular digital SLR cameras inside underwater housings that are much more conducive to photography. You can look through the lens, you can compose, you can focus, and you can see exactly what you’re shooting. And, of course with digital — I switched to digital from film in 2005 — I can shoot so much more … I can put a CompactFlash card in and shoot 600 raw frames, and I can see on the back of the camera how I’m doing. So, if my lighting isn’t just where I want it, I can make adjustments.

Environmental issues and ocean sustainability figure prominently in your work — from tracing the migration, mating, and pupping of harp seals to photographing rare hammerhead sharks. How do your photos speak to the value of conservation?

So many of the animals that live in the ocean are enigmatic … I’m trying to reveal a little bit about the animals’ lives, I want to go into their habitat, I want to make intimate portraits, I want to show the science that’s being done, and allow the story to unfold in a way that talks about any threats or needs for conservation.

I realize that there are many subscribers of National Geographic who read the magazine cover to cover every month. But what I’m trying to do is get the guy or gal who’s sitting in the dentist office and waiting and picks up the magazine — I want to get them with a really powerful picture that draws them in so they want to read the caption and hopefully, those two things will make them read the article. And, perhaps in the few minutes that I’ve got their attention, I can help them learn about something that I think is important.

I’m sure you’ve had many adventures over the years. Tell me about a particularly exhilarating or scary shoot.

I’ve been lost under Arctic ice, when I’m doing stories on harp seals and I have to find my exit. I’ve been lost in shipwrecks like the Andrea Doria for a few seconds and that’s very scary. I’ve been chased by sharks and other big animals like squid. So those are definitely adventures that I’d rather not have.

But on the other end of the spectrum there are many wonderful experiences. There are pictures in the book of some of my encounters with sharks. I had this beautiful experience with this oceanic white tip shark, an animal that’s considered the fourth most dangerous species of shark on the planet. It’s almost extinct … We found one in the Bahamas on this expedition when I went looking for them, and it was a beautiful female, about nine feet in length, and she just hung out with me for about two hours. I was able to make so many pictures of her and portraits and wide-angle shots, and it was just magical in this beautiful Bahamas light, late in the day, blue water, sun shining.

A photo that’s become well known is my assistant standing on the bottom of the ocean next to a southern right whale. This was a photo I made in a place where no one had ever dived with these whales before [the Auckland Islands]; they had only been discovered a few years before. And, it was a very speculative trip and I didn’t know what we would find. But, I went hoping to get lucky and found these whales that were extremely curious and wanted to hang out with us. Swimming with a 45-foot, 70-ton animal as big as a bus, that’s willing to interact with you — it’s choosing to let you into its world — that is off the scale. It’s very hard to articulate that. Those are the exhilarating experiences that I remember much more than the dangerous moments.

How did you arrive at the title for your new book, Ocean Soul? What does that mean to you?

I think it may have come about because someone once said that when looking at my photographs, they could see the animal’s soul. I really liked that description, because I’ve often felt this life force, for lack of a better word, that sort of exudes from animals. You don’t always get it, but it’s often there in their eyes or in their gestures, or in the way they act near me.

And the title is also a bit of a double entendre in the sense that it’s how I see myself, as an “Ocean Soul,” who’s spent a good part of his life traveling around the world and in the ocean, trying to learn about it.

The interview has been condensed and edited. All photos by Brian Skerry.