Assignment Blog--Brian Skerry: One Fish, Two Fish, Gray Fish, Blue Fish

Monday September 14 - I felt like I was in the middle of a Dr. Seuss story on my third dive today at Nikumaroro. Rob Barrel, the owner of our expedition vessel NAI'A, took me to an underwater location he found that was absolutely loaded with fish! I dove late in the day, beginning around 4 p.m. and swam over some huge boulders and reef structure to get to this place where massive schools of fish swarmed. I settled down on top of a massive boulder and wrapped my legs around smaller rocks to steady myself in the swaying surge and began composing images through my viewfinder.

Yellowfin Surgeonfish schooling and feeding in the shallows of Nikumaroro island in the Phoenix Islands. (Photo: Brian Skerry)

The visibility was not great, but it didn't need to be for the type of photos I hoped to make. The fish were not especially shy and I was able to get fairly close. I watched schools of yellowfin surgeonfish and lined surgeonfish and shoals of mimic goatfish, snapper and chubs pulse by. I left my perch and floated into the water column amongst the schools trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, at least in my mind. My body ebbed and flowed with the surge and I composed and fired frame after frame, hoping to make pictures that would capture the essence of this incredible place.

As light levels dropped I moved slightly shallower, to the top of the reef where the breaking waves tossed me around like a leaf blowing in an autumn breeze, but where endless schools of fish whizzed by my dome port. I slowed my camera's shutter speed and my pictures began to interpret the scene with a dreamy, surrealistic feel. I looked past the hundreds of surgeonfish to where the crashing waves created a frothy white backdrop and saw four giant trevally racing through the surf. These fish were the size of saint bernard dogs, but acted like wildebeest storming across the Serengeti as they cruised over the reef flats. Silver and black in color, they possessed a real "attitude" from my layman's perspective, like a street gang looking for a fight.

They were bold and aggressive clearly spying me from a distance, then making a beeline for me and covering the distance in seconds. Realizing I wasn't something in which they had an interest, they paused for barely a second, just enough time for me to squeeze off a shot, and then swam out of my view.

As the sun was setting on the surface and this underwater place took on the light levels of a dimly lit pub, sharks began to materialize in the haze. Just one blacktip at first, but then a few followed by increasing numbers of gray reef sharks. I have seen this behavior before on remote reefs and knew it was the "witching hour" when the sharks come into the shallows to feed. The gray reefs were the boldest, cruising in repeatedly to check me out, then turning their attention back to the fish.

A gray reef shark cruises in to check out photographer Brian Skerry during as sunset dive on Nikumaroro Island in the Phoenix Islands. (Photo: Brian Skerry)

As I swam away from the shoreline out towards open water to be picked up by the skiff, I saw a half dozen milkfish ascending in the blue and needlefish schooling in the dappled golden light just below the surface. Riding the skiff back to NAI'A I replayed the dive in my mind, thinking how this scene likely occurred every evening, but that no one was ever here to see it, except on this night.

-Brian Skerry


  1. Brian,

    This shark looks like it is "positioning" in an attack mode? Did you stick around very long?

  2. Thanks for the question Evelyn!
    Brian responds to it in this post.

  3. Thanks for the beautiful dive, Brian. It felt like being there. . .

  4. Sounds like a good dive... We've been seeing quite a few great white sharks here off the coast of San Diego, actually coming into the shallows. The water has been really cold this summer wonder if that has anything to do with it...