Brian Skerry is photographing this expedition for National Geographic magazine and the majority of his photographs cannot be released until the story is published.
Long before I ever pick up my camera and begin making pictures for a new story, I typically spend months and sometimes years, researching my subject. Given that there are so many unpredictable variables from animals not being there to bad weather and poor visibility underwater, I try to improve my odds as much as possible with detailed research about the sites where I’ll be working. But this assignment was a little different. Before I could even get in the water, I had to find the sites--underwater mountains that we were not 100% certain even existed.
Fortunately, we were armed with some pretty good information. Greg Stone and I have been working on and planning this story for several years now (His introduction to this expedition is here). Greg will write the story, one of several we have done together over the years. Other researchers from Conservation International (CI) including Crissy Huffard (who co-wrote this post) and Mark Erdmann who work in this section of Raja Ampat had approximate positions for seamounts that rose from deep water to within a few meters of the surface. But still, we needed to search and locate sites and there was no guarantee we would find any. Fortunately, we had a state-of-the-art twin-engine helicopter on board the ship and a highly skilled pilot. On day two of the expedition, Mark Erdmann and I lifted off the deck at about 10 a.m. and began the search on which the entire expedition hinged.
I learned some time ago that there are two ways to truly appreciate coral reefs – underwater by diving on them and from the air. In clear, tropical water, coral reefs glow in shades of green and blue when viewed from the sky and whenever possible I always try to make such pictures as part of my photo coverage. Aerial images are not only beautiful but they help readers gain a sense of place with a story that otherwise consists primarily of underwater photos [check out Brian's images in this National Geographic article about right whales]. The summits of any seamounts we might locate would be coral reefs, but would be relatively small in size. Our hope was that with the clear skies and sun, we would be able to see a shallow water seamount without having to be directly over it.
Aerial View of Raja Ampat (Photo: Brian Skerry)
The flight plan consisted of a two hour transect that would take us over nearby islands then miles offshore. I was sitting behind the pilot with the door open and was wearing a harness that was clipped in at two points for safety. This system allowed me the freedom to move and even go outside the chopper to make photos if necessary. We were flying at an altitude of between 600 and 1500 feet and the air was warm and pleasant. Less than an hour into our flight we spied a glowing spec on the ocean’s surface in the distance. As we drew closer, the spec materialized into a small reef. We had located our first seamount.
Soft corals (Photo: Brian Skerry)
The seamount was interestingly shaped with a wider, rounded side that tapered into a narrower handle-like end. From my bird’s eye view, it reminded me of a stubby spoon – a spoon shaped patch of green and aqua contours lying in a massive ocean of deep blue.
Sea fan (Photo: Brian Skerry)
In the days ahead we would be diving this site and searching for others. But this was a great beginning with the burden of discovery having been lifted. And I ... now had an unexplored subject to photograph.