‘National Geographic’ photog focuses on ocean ecosystems during Holland Center visit

Monograph cover; Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry

All Brian Skerry wanted to do when he started in photography was to “make pretty pictures.” His life’s mission and career eventually ventured into documenting the ills affecting the environment; specifically, the ocean.

Skerry – a photojournalist with “National Geographic” and author of the book “Ocean Soul” – was the featured speaker March 10th at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. He appeared as part of the Omaha Performing Art’s “National Geographic Live” speaker series.


Skerry’s presentation focused on the threats to the ocean’s environment – most of it manmade – and a hope for future success.

Harp seals are killed for their coats, so they can be made into gloves and hats. Blue fin tuna are hunted as part of a “lust” for sushi.


More importantly – for the Harp seal – climate change is affecting its habitat. Baby harp seals need a firm ice bed for the first two weeks of their lives, before they can take to the water and learn to swim and survive, Skerry said.

But, climate change is threatening their existence. He has traveled to locations where the ice is slushy or non-existent. There is nowhere for females to keep their pups, so the babies drown.

As for the “lust” for sushi and seafood, sea animals are needlessly getting killed in nets in the drive to satisfy human’s desires for seafood. In example, he shared a photo of a shrimp fisherman’s haul – seven shrimp caught while dozens of fish, urchins and other animals were also caught and died. The dead animals are tossed back into the water.


Overall, much of sealife is rapidly disappearing from the oceans. The Blue fin tuna? 90 percent of its population is gone. I’m not an ocean guy, but I can’t believe that a fish is almost wiped out, so someone can have sushi.

Sharks are a breed that gets a bum rap, based on Skerry’s talk. People see sharks as a ruthless killing machine, like in “Jaws.” If you know what you are doing, Skerry said, you can survive among them. That isn’t to say sharks don’t look at people as food, because they do. They look at everything as food. But, they are not as ruthless as they are portrayed.


Sharks are on the decline, as well, Skerry said. Almost 90 percent of hammerhead sharks have disappeared from the seas. The Oceanic whitetail shark is almost extinct, Skerry said, with about only 98 percent eliminated.

Another threatened animal in the Right whale, he said. It’s called the Right whale, because hunters said it was the “right” whale to hunt – slow and floats after it’s killed, he said.


The Right whale has been separated into two groups, due to geographical changes, Skerry said. The North Atlantic Right whale lives along the northeastern United States. The Southern Right whale is predominately located in the southern hemisphere, near South America. However, the whales are also along the New Zealand coast line.

The North Atlantic Right whale’s existence is threatened – only a few hundred remain, he said. They are often the victims of run-ins with boats.

First Encounter

Skerry traveled to New Zealand to see the Southern Right whale. He was amazed at the whale’s inquisitiveness. While photographing underwater, one spent part of a day with them. He got a shot of a whale next to one of his assistants. The whale was quite friendly.

This is where the story starts turning more positive.

In order to help sealife survive and help the environment, more of the ocean and seas need to be protected, Skerry said. About 1 percent of the world’s oceans are protected.

During another visit to New Zealand, he visited a marine reserve – a section of the water protected by the government. New Zealand is proactive and a leader in this area.


The goal was to help the area bounce back, but it exceeded expectations. The belief was that more sealife would come to the area. What they saw was that – once an urchin desert – an ecosystem grew. Kelp started growing after snapper fish returned and ate the urchins, which once thrived on the kelp. Previously, the urchins destroyed the kelp, and the area became known as an urchin desert.

As the area developed in the marine reserve, sealife thrived. People came back to the area to visit because they wanted to see the fish, the urchin, even the kelp. They’ve had 300,000 people visit because there is sealife to see, not just a beach to lie on.

A New Zealand-based scientist told Skerry that the area was in much better shape than decades ago, due to the marine reserve. He was shocked by that comment.

“Usually, I’m told, ‘You should have been here five years ago…’” he said.


As he concluded his presentation with questions from the audience, he answered a question that humans and sea animals can survive together. We need to lead the way with conservation of the seas and their residents.

The “National Geographic” speaker series concludes April 7th with “Pink boots and a machete.” It features Dr. Mireya Mayor, who went from being a Miami Dolphins football cheerleader to a primatologist. For ticket information, check out www.TicketOmaha.com.

DISCLOSURE: Thanks to the Omaha Performing Arts Foundation for the complimentary tickets. However, all thoughts and opinions are mine.