20,000 leagues under the sea

From diving in arctic waters to facing elephants in the wild, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry and conservationist and multimedia storyteller Laurel Chor have done it all. Chrystal Chan caught up with them at their full house talks on campus to get the stories behind their pictures

Brian Skerry
Dived for three weeks for this moment

“No one else has ever photographed Southern Right Whales in the Auckland Islands of New Zealand. I spent over a year researching these huge mammals, including where they swam. We had to descend about 25 metres each time to find them. After more than three weeks, I finally got this shot of a whale that was nearly 15 metres long and probably weighed 70 tonnes, almost as big as a bus!”

Almost got trapped under the ice for this shot

“It was -2 degrees Celsius underwater when I photographed this harp seal at the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada. I had to dive under eight-metre-thick ice through the cracks in it. Midway through, I looked up and saw the gap in the ice – my entry and exit point – closing. Heart pounding, I quickly found another way out.”

Until the sea cows come home

“I was in Florida researching manatees, also known as sea cows, for a children’s book, and dived into shallow waters to find them. As you can’t chase an animal to photograph it, I had to be very patient and wait for one of the sea cows to come up to me. Luckily, these plant lovers are usually quite tolerant of humans, so this one didn’t swim away when I gently moved closer to photograph it.”

A flash of gold among debris

“At Suruga Bay in Japan, about 30 metres down, near the sandy bottom of the ocean, I had spotted some debris. As I swam by, I spied a flash of yellow. So I got down on my belly and used my elbows to slowly inch closer. That’s when this tiny Goby drifted to the doorway of its ‘mobile’ home.”

Laurel Chor
Came within 30 metres of danger

“This is one of my favourite shots. When I was a field assistant in Africa, I came across a tiny clearing, where a family of elephants was taking a bath. It’s very unusual to come across elephants like this in the wild and I was dangerously close to them. It felt like a very intimate view into their lives. Unfortunately, soon after snapping this, we were evacuated from the country because rebels were in the vicinity. And sadly, elephants near where this photo was taken were slaughtered two months later by a group of poachers for their ivory.”

Stood at the centre of a violent clash

“I covered Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement recently and in this photo, I was literally caught in the middle, with the police on one side and protesters on the other. It was quite scary and violent and many people got knocked down because of all the pushing. I could keep my balance because I play rugby! If you didn’t stand your ground, you’d be knocked over.”

Sought the human spirit in the midst of tragedy

“I snapped this at one of the temporary camps set up after the Nepal earthquakes. This woman was sweeping outside her makeshift tent. Nepalese people take pride in where they live, even if it is temporary. This is what’s amazing about the Nepalese – they are so resilient. They’ve been through so much devastation, but life goes on. It’s inspiring to see what the human spirit can endure.”

Threw myself into the human condition

“It took me eight months to gather the interviews, photos and video material, and to write up the story on Mui Thomas. She’s training hard to become a rugby referee, so her story is extra close to my heart. I followed her home from work one night and visited her at her workplace, watched her at training, and went to the annual rugby referee gala. Her story touched something in people, because you see this girl with a debilitating skin condition still living an active life and valiantly overcoming tough situations.”