• February 26, 2014

Brian Skerry: Swimming With Giants

Brian Skerry

This month National Geographic magazine features an article on bluefin tuna—a super creature being relentlessly overfished—written by Kenneth Brower with photographs by Brian Skerry. Here, Skerry tells of his experience swimming with Atlantic bluefin tuna, and the power of being underwater with these “thoroughbreds of the sea.”

In the dark, chilly waters they materialized—massive beings with large eyes that I knew were watching my every move from deep below long before I ever saw them. The fish were nearly 10 feet in length and several feet thick, weighing around 1,000 pounds, and moved unlike anything else I had seen underwater.

Spinning around in circles I would see them rocket up from the depths, turn on a dime while flashing colors, then disappear back into the gloom. At least a dozen of them swam around me, and I scanned all axes trying to follow their movements. As they passed by I rolled in the wake of their mighty bulk.

Mesmerized by this fluid scene, I forced myself out of the trance I was in and began making pictures, but just kept repeating over and over in my head, “these are perfect oceanic creatures.” They were the creatures that had haunted my dreams and stirred my soul. Feeling at times like Ahab, I’d pursued these animals for almost two decades; a quest not to capture, but to photograph. And finally, I was here, on assignment for National Geographic magazine, tasked with bringing back images of these elusive and enigmatic beasts. I was in the northern realm of the last of the giants. I was swimming with Atlantic bluefin tuna.

Picture of: Atlantic bluefin tuna
Atlantic bluefin tuna swim in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The tuna gather here in the summer and early fall to feed on oily herring and mackerel.

Although I had found the bluefin, getting to them remained a challenge. It was autumn in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, when easterly winds can whip up the sea into a churning froth of white-capped waves and Novi hulled boats strain on their lines at the dock. Each night I would listen to the howling winds from my pine-paneled bedroom at the B&B and pray it would be calm in the morning and I could return offshore. In my two weeks in this location I had a handful of days when conditions allowed me into the water. Brief encounters to be sure, but very, very special.

To be underwater with a bluefin tuna is to witness the divine sense of nature. They are true thoroughbreds of the sea, with few if any equals. This is an animal that swims across entire oceans in the course of each year and is capable of generating heat that allows it to travel practically from the equator to the poles. With a hydrodynamic design that has been studied by naval engineers, they swim faster than a torpedo and possess physical endurance that we can hardly fathom. It is a warm-blooded fish that continues to grow its entire life—a 30-year-old bluefin can weigh more than a ton—though as far as we know, none reach that age these days due to overwhelming fishing pressure.

Picture of: An Atlantic bluefin tuna
A bluefin tuna swims along the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A voracious predator, the bluefin feeds mainly on small fish, crustaceans, and squid. But it is also pursued relentlessly by humans for raw dishes because of its buttery meat.

Photographically, they were more challenging to capture than any other subject I’ve shot. Their highly reflective bodies were like fast swimming mirrors, and the exposure range between the surface waters and the water just a few feet below was as much as 5 f-stops. Staring through my viewfinder, I slipped into “the zone” and pulled from my more than thirty years of experience with marine wildlife. I tried to anticipate the tuna’s movements, calculating when they would rocket upwards and where they would turn. I adjusted my body position to be less threatening and willed them close enough to fill the frame.

Though my quest was fulfilled, my soul still stirs. I muse about their wanderings, their epic journeys through deep Atlantic canyons and migrations along ancient highways to spawning grounds. For me, swimming with bluefin tuna was once only a dream. But with this experience my dreams are now enhanced—painted with flashes of silver and yellow and blue—and are of being underwater again and staring into that haunting, vigilant, bluefin eye.

Read the article and view more of Skerry’s photos of bluefin tuna in the March issue of National Geographic.

See more of Skerry’s work on his website, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Emma
    October 30, 2014

    scary what if they were to eat you scary ay

  2. Jeff
    March 18, 2014

    I done the same thing a few years ago in PEI. The most poetic thing I could come up with was Ferrari of the sea. You captured the experience, both in photo and word, to a tee. For all the activists, you should know that in the area where the man dove the fishery is very highly monitored and regulated. Our reputation is suffering at the hand of long liners and unregulated fisheries the world over.

  3. Captain Jeff MacNeill
    March 18, 2014

    I really enjoyed having you out in my boat to do this article brain.it is a great chance to show people around the world what I see every day.

  4. Pantelis Barouchas
    March 8, 2014

    ..some bluefins in Greece

  5. Michelle
    March 2, 2014

    As per LizzyK, I dont think I can eat this fish ever again until overfishing stops. I might only be 1 person but if enough individuals stop then there will b less demand. I think we r only supplied yellow fin / jack tuna though. Blue fin is 10times the price and is consumed by the Japanese market predominantly. I am astounded by their tributes. Faster than a torpedo!!!

  6. David
    March 2, 2014

    The earth is only here for this often despicable species to rape and pilliage.

  7. Oliver Carrington
    March 2, 2014

    I love and respect your passion , your commitment and am in awe of your talent with photography and your ability to share your soul through your words. So much respect for chasing and sharing your dream – thank you so much for being you : )

  8. vlado
    March 2, 2014

    I have a chance to swim with bluefin Adriatic tuna, and know very well what you are talking about. An amazing experience…

  9. Tom
    March 2, 2014

    As entertaining as this is its highlighting trophy fish… some that read this may actually go there to fish for them and within a couple years these kings will be gone

  10. Lawrence McGrath
    March 2, 2014

    Great article, and photos on an under-covered subject.

    Absolutely amazingly adapted animals. The streamlining alone is insane (pectoral fin depression for example).

    I wish you all the best in tackling the selfishness and trivialisation that keeps these creatures in the supermarket shelves.

  11. rolly
    March 1, 2014

    Thanks god for this wonderful creatures, and of course thanks for Your Perseverance for Sharing this knowledge, amazing!!!!!!!!!

  12. Travis Belanger
    March 1, 2014

    Fantastic photos of magnificent creatures! Very jealous of your experience!

  13. John Mohr
    March 1, 2014

    Great photos and article on these magnificent creatures.

  14. Corniceman
    March 1, 2014

    Made my want a tuna stake.

  15. SaraT
    March 1, 2014

    Excellent article and photos. Very glad there are people like you bringing these experiences to the rest of us. Fascinating creatures so worthy of protection.

  16. Aliti
    March 1, 2014

    Thank you for continuing to bring us story and beautiful images from the deep seas. Without people like you and your professionalism people would be so ignorant to other living creatures. I hope you will continue to educate us in your field. Thank you again.

  17. Magoola B. Kalyebbi
    March 1, 2014

    Thank you for the time taken to document these huge fish. Excessive greed, mostly for money we end up squandering, has already altered the balances for many species. Blue-fin Tuna has joined the queue. The impact eventually will be on human civilization.

  18. kenth
    March 1, 2014

    Sooo nice

  19. Judy Foester
    February 28, 2014

    The warm-blooded features blew me away. It reminded me of ducks, with their separate circulatory system for the legs.

  20. dar
    February 28, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your “visions”. It is only in this knowledge that others who see only above the water can know what lives below.

  21. Afsaneh,Rezaei
    February 27, 2014

    Seeing these pictures, swimming in the pristine environment of my dreams

  22. Brian Skerry
    February 27, 2014

    Ann – There is a picture in the bluefin story in NGM of a diver swimming with an Atlantic bluefin tuna that offers a perspective on size. Thanks!

  23. William burke
    February 27, 2014

    If you ever get a chance to dive and see all the beautiful things in the sea you will have a different outlook on life,I was lucky to have went fishing with the local fishermen of Barbados,they fish with a rope,not a pole,what a dream come true,we caught a six foot yellow fin,it took us three times to get it on the boat,I will never forget it.

  24. Jane Blick
    February 27, 2014

    Thank you so much for reminding us of the fish as a living creature as opposed to just something we might put in a sandwich. I have been guilty of this in the past. I think its about time we looked beyond the end of our noses and starting looking at our earth and the creatures that inhabit it as a whole before its too late.

  25. Walch Emmanuel
    February 27, 2014

    Really interesting !

  26. LizzyK
    February 27, 2014

    Thats it, I shall eat tuna no more.

  27. Rachel
    February 27, 2014

    Thank you for letting me ‘see’ through your eyes and camera. To hear others passion for a subject is so uplifting

  28. Veronique Lemay
    February 27, 2014

    @ Ann Tihansky : Type “size of tuna” in google images. Plenty of photos of humans with big catches.

  29. Lisa Cubitt
    February 27, 2014

    Brian! I loved your photos and article and your dedication. Thank you from my heart.

  30. Denis
    February 26, 2014

    what an awe inspiring commentary on a spieces under attack & an Ocean dieing because of careless greed.

  31. abet
    February 26, 2014

    it look very tasty

  32. Chris Deschenes
    February 26, 2014

    got to love Nat Geo for what they do , Tunas are amazing and so fast ,

  33. Juan Carlos Shaw
    February 26, 2014

    Healthy envy… What a luck.. God bless you!!!

  34. Quentin
    February 26, 2014

    Although I feel this article is both educational and highly informative. I can’t help but feel that these are just big, normal fish. Normal, big fish. 0/10

  35. Rich Davidson
    February 26, 2014

    ‘Teach the children well’…we share a very small (space) planet!

  36. Bonnie Linville
    February 26, 2014

    Beautiful! I’m going to use this article in my 5th grade Science classroom on our current unit of study , Laws Of Motion!! This research will enhance my students learning experience ! Thanks so much

  37. Osama Abughanim
    February 26, 2014

    This herd of blue fin’s is worth ton of dollars

  38. m.bumble
    February 26, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your experience so inspiringly – humans really do need to take planet stewardship more seriously, if stunning creatures like this are to be seen in the future.

  39. patricia Villarreal
    February 26, 2014

    Thank you on letting us mesmerize about this engineering perfect machine. They’re truly admirable and the efforts people make to keep them safe and respected should be also recognized.

  40. Ann Tihansky
    February 26, 2014

    Do you have an image that shows the scale of these ‘giants’ next to a human? in the water? I would really like to see that.

  41. Valerie Kmieck
    February 26, 2014

    Thank you, thank you, so much for such spectacular pictures of another species that will soon be decimated to the point of no return by man kinds greed.

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