Dive into an “Underwater Kaleidoscope” of Unbelievable Beauty

Join National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry in the vibrant waters of Cortes Bank and prepare for a sensory overload. “For me, diving in Cortes Bank is like diving into an underwater kaleidoscope,” says Skerry. “It is this fanciful, almost surreal place where green grass sways in a wavelike formation, and what appear to be palm trees are growing out of the seafloor. You’ve got bat rays and stingrays that are feeding down in that surf grass with dolphins overhead. It really is like swimming through the pages of a storybook in a ‘Seuss-ical’ sort of way, and with every dive you’re meeting this fascinating cast of characters. It’s really quite stunning and unlike anything else I’ve seen.”

Cortes Banks, teeming with palm kelp, sea grass and other flora. F moons and senioritas.
Cortes Bank teems with palm kelp, sea grass, and other flora. (Photograph by Brian Skerry)

Rare northern right whale dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Pacific torpedo rays, sea lions, and harbor seals are just some of the wildlife that call Cortes Bank home. They elegantly maneuver through the cartoonish sea plants undulating with colors so bright and lively that they may as well have been plucked from the pages of a children’s book. But words can’t quite do the exquisite nature of Cortes Bank justice, so Skerry tried to capture it in photographs.

A seal looks for a meal by a floating kelp paddy on Cortes Banks. (Credit: Brian Skerry)
A seal looks for a meal by a floating kelp paddy on Cortes Bank. (Photograph by Brian Skerry)

“Cortes Bank has remained somewhat unspoiled due to its remoteness, being a hundred miles offshore of California, and the weather can be quite nasty out there, but Cortes Bank currently has zero protection. So I want to make photographs that will compel readers to first know about this place and then hopefully have a desire to want to protect it,” Skerry says.

Due to El Niño, Cortes Bank has fallen victim to warming waters. The change in temperature is killing off the region’s giant kelp, which is an integral part of a healthy ecosystem for the area’s diverse marine life. As part of National Geographic’s film, Sea of Hope, premiering January 15, 2017, Skerry is working with scientists to document rare marine ecosystems in United States waters, highlighting their beauty, wildlife, and need for protection. “I think the combination of good photography and storytelling with great science will help form a more complete picture for both regular citizens and legislators to make decisions about what needs to be done going forward,” Skerry says.

A ray swims over the seafloor in Cortes Bank. (Photograph by Brian Skerry)

As photogenic a landscape as Cortes Bank is, Skerry was met with many challenges in trying to capture its beauty. “It can be like diving in a washing machine. In the winter time it’s not uncommon to see 80 to 100 foot waves out there—it’s a place where famous surfers have journeyed to surf these monster waves. Of the three weeks I scheduled there, I only had three days where I could actually dive on Cortes Bank proper because of the weather.” The expedition became a race against time.

“Being an underwater photographer is quite different than the work that my terrestrial counterparts do. I can’t go to a remote place, sit in a blind for a month and use 600 mm lens while waiting for an elusive animal to wander by and make those pictures,” says Skerry. “All nature photography is very difficult and has its own unique challenges, but I can only stay underwater as long as the air supply on my back will last. I have to get very close to my subjects, even in the places where the water is the clearest I usually have to make pictures within a couple of meters of my subjects. I have to be able to light them and that is really a testimony to the animals that allow me into their world.”

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins on the hunt corral several half-moon fish into a bait ball.
Pacific white-sided dolphins on the hunt corral several half-moon fish into a bait ball. (Photograph by Brian Skerry)

“I’ve learned throughout my career that there’s absolutely no benefit to pursuing wildlife when you’re underwater, or terrestrially. I don’t think chasing animals is ever a good or productive way to make pictures. The thing that works the best is to be very patient and to just find a place where you can sit peacefully and quietly. If you give off a good vibe, control your breathing and you’re not looking threatening, these animals will inevitably become curious.”

One such animal whose curiosity was peaked by Skerry’s presence was the incredibly rare northern right whale dolphin. “I had never seen this species in my life,” Skerry says of the dolphins. “My friend and expert guide, Richard Herman, identified them and said, ‘You know, it’s probably unlikely that they’re ever going to stick around.’ And I asked him, ‘Do you think I might be able to get in the water and they would come to me?’ He says, ‘It’s pretty unlikely Brian, but you can give it a try.’ So I slipped in the water. The dolphins weren’t even right there at that moment, they were a little bit away. And I was absolutely blessed with this phenomenal experience where the dolphins just sort of swarmed around me for what seemed like a very long time. It was probably in reality only a few seconds or a minute or two. They were curious, inquisitive, and I was able to make a handful of pictures that to me are very special, but also speak to this broader issue of this place being an oasis.”

Northern Right Whale Dolphins on Cortes Banks.
Northern right whale dolphins on Cortes Bank. (Photograph by Brian Skerry)

Skerry has spent some 10,000 hours underwater, bringing images of the marine world back to those of us on land. “I’ve been diving for over three decades and I’ve put myself in some pretty crazy places, but I think having a degree of fear has kept me alive. If the conditions don’t seem right or if you’re in the presence of an animal that isn’t behaving the way you would expect, you get that sort of primal sense and it’s important to listen to that and get out of the water. I’ve been lost under arctic ice, I’ve been chased by sperm whales or chased out of the water by sharks. I drifted off the coast of Ireland for two and a half hours when the dive boat never saw me and I was picked up ultimately by a fishing boat,” says Skerry, recounting some of his closer-calls. “I try to be cautious and listen to that little voice inside of me, and I have no qualms about standing down if a particular day just doesn’t seem right, and you live to fight another day.”

Brian Skerry is a grantee of National Geographic’s Expeditions Council. To learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society, visit natgeo.org/grants.

Video Credits:
IMAGES: Brian Skerry

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Nora Rappaport is a producer and editor on National Geographic's Science and Exploration Media team. She produces content that highlights the awe-inspiring work of National Geographic explorers around the globe. When not working with her colleagues to inspire people to care about the planet, Nora can be found hanging out with any number of dogs.