Brian Skerry has logged more than 10,000 hours taking pictures beneath the planet’s most remote seas – shooting everything from harp seals under ice in northern Canada to right whales off New Zealand’s Auckland Islands. So it seems like a bad omen when Skerry hops into the frigid waters of a rocky inlet off Cape Ann and yelps a mild epithet.
It’s a few days after Thanksgiving, and the award-winning National Geographic photographer from Uxbridge is starting the first shoot of a five-year project to chronicle the life teeming off the New England coast. The water in Folly Cove is 43 degrees, and Skerry is diving in a drysuit. But the hardy 50-year-old has forgotten his thermal undergarments, the only such lapse he can remember in his 35-year career, making the splash into the turbid water like a dunk into an ice-filled tub. The stabbing sensation recedes into a kind of gnawing numbness as he descends along a granite ledge with more than $20,000 in cameras and strobe lights in tow.
A Sea Raven rests on the ocean floor off the coast of Rockport, MA / Photograph by Brian Skerry / Magazine / 01/15/12
Skerry captures this image of a vividly colored sea raven.

I’ve joined Skerry on the dive today, and so has a photographer friend of his. I’m a tad skittish, in my wetsuit with as many layers as I can fit beneath it for warmth. Even with the extra insulation, it’s by far the coldest dive I’ve experienced.
As we trail behind, Skerry hovers over a patch of sand about 30 feet below the surface, where all the shells are alive, and hermit crabs and other creatures skitter along the seabed. Skerry spends a few minutes looking for compelling contrasts between the dark splotches of scattered sand dollars and the white bottom before finding a large moon snail, a luminously spectral creature about the size of a fist that doesn’t seem to take notice as Skerry clicks away from above.
Taking pictures underwater can be uniquely challenging, especially when the seas are filled with plankton and bacteria, as they are on this November morning, reducing visibility to 15 feet. “The ocean acts as a giant filter, with the water absorbing color and wreaking havoc on light, reflecting, refracting, and scattering it,” Skerry says afterward. “If you’re not careful, you’ll illuminate all the particles in the water.”
Skerry doesn’t use telephoto lenses. Instead, he gets as close as possible, whether to sharks, whales, or giant squids, and his photographs have been published in nearly 20 National Geographic articles and five books. His most recent book, Ocean Soul, made up of highlights from his work around the world, came out last fall.
During the 44 minutes he spends at the bottom of Folly Cove, Skerry begins to lose feeling in most of his extremities. But he continues to search for a worthy image to capture for a book he hopes to publish at the end of his project in New England. He plans to shoot everything from cod to lobster in Stellwagen Bank, Cashes Ledge, and Jordan Basin in the Gulf of Maine, hoping to illustrate the splendor and squalor of the cold, dark waters where he grew up diving.
As he swims amid piles of submerged rocks, peering into the shadows of the flickering light filtering down, he finds what he’s looking for: something unexpected. Appearing to be taking a nap on one rock is a bright-yellow sea raven, a monstrous-looking fish about a foot long, with prickly fins, globular eyes, several rows of sharp teeth, and a fleshy mouth ringed with spiny tabs that resemble a poorly groomed beard.
Skerry spends about 15 minutes aiming his strobes and Nikon D3S at the fish hidden in the underwater foliage, snapping as many as 100 frames in search of the right composition, lighting, and what he calls the “gesture and grace” of his signature photographs.
“A scene that has grace is often gentle,” he says. “It has a beauty that makes your eye move around the picture in a lyrical way.” In a typical magazine assignment for National Geographic, he might shoot as many as 40,000 frames and publish just a dozen. “This job requires patience,” he says.
After a few minutes, the sea raven seems to awaken from its slumber and swims away leisurely, disappearing into the briny murk. With little feeling left in his hands and feet, Skerry points his thumbs at the surface and ascends to the waiting boat. Also numb, with the frigid water permeating every layer I have on, I follow him without hesitation.
“I thought I had hypothermia,” he says while slipping out of his gear, “but when I saw that sea raven, I forgot about the cold.”
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel. View more of Brian Skerry’s photographs at