Thirty-one years ago I encountered my first shark underwater. It was a blue shark, about five feet in length, swimming off the coast of Rhode Island. I can recall vividly how elegantly this animal moved, like a fluid fighter jet cruising through temperate seas. That experience hooked me on sharks, and in the years since I have found them a quintessential photo subject—representing the perfect blend of grace and power. But as beautiful as these animals are visually, I have become increasingly interested in producing stories about their lives because I have realized how important they are to our planet and that they are in trouble.
When I swam with my first shark in 1982, few divers were actually hoping to see sharks on their dives. Misconceptions were commonplace and few believed anything good could come from such an encounter. In more recent times however, attitudes have changed and many divers now regularly travel to places where they can see sharks—and as a result, legions of shark ambassadors have been created. Despite this evolution in attitude among many, sharks continued to be maligned. And when an animal is viewed as dangerous or bad, eliminating them invites little objection.
An estimated 100 million sharks are killed by humans each year across the planet. We cannot remove this many predators from any ecosystem and expect things to remain healthy. Killing sharks damages the ocean, and an unhealthy ocean hurts everything, including us. As a photojournalist focused on marine wildlife and ocean issues, and as someone who appreciates sharks, I feel a sense of responsibility and a sense of urgency to shine a big light on these animals as a way of raising awareness.
Although the lives of these animals remain enigmatic, there have been fascinating discoveries made by researchers, which along with the use of new photographic technologies make this a perfect and vital time for such stories.
Last week I began my new shark journey with a brief scouting trip to the Bahamas, and a place called Tiger Beach. I was last in this location nearly nine years ago while photographing a National Geographic story about sharks of the Bahamas. I was curious to see if much had changed and if tigers could still be seen in healthy numbers. A few dives told me that if anything, the shark numbers have increased and that this unique place has grown as an ecotourism hotspot for divers willing to come nose to nose with very large, predatory sharks.
In the time ahead, I will be continuing this photographic journey, lifting the veil that has shrouded sharks to cast light on their lives in the sea. I believe that awareness will be followed by concern, followed by conservation.
Brian Skerry is a wildlife photographer for National Geographic magazine, specializing in marine wildlife and underwater environments. View a video interview with him on Proof, and read his account of finding a dolphin 22 years after she was first photographed for National Geographic. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.