March 4th – 7th—I woke around 4 a.m. to the sound of wind howling outside my home near Boston, Massachusetts. It’s the kind of winter wind that makes you want to roll over, pull up the covers and drift back to sleep, happy in knowing you’re safe and warm. But I didn’t have that luxury. I had a van arriving at my place in an hour and a half to take me to the airport. I was beginning the long journey to Japan, where I would begin a new feature story assignment about Japan’s Ocean Wilderness.
The idea for this story about Japan is mine, one I’ve been thinking about for many years. As a diver and underwater photographer I’ve spent a lifetime dreaming about all the places I want to explore in the sea. While perhaps not on every diver’s list of places they have to dive, Japan is right at the top of mine. The richest marine ecosystems on Earth usually have one thing in common; each is nourished by ocean currents. This island nation in the North Pacific is influenced by five major currents and therefore has an incredible range of diversity within her seas. Over a period of years I have researched potential locations, and slowly the idea evolved of shooting a story for National Geographic magazine that would showcase Japan’s marine habitats, from ocean ice to temperate to tropical--something extremely rare for one country to boast.
Photography by Mauricio Handler
This first trip will take me to Hokkaido during winter, where I hope to dive beneath ocean ice to search for animals that live within this hostile and frozen realm. However, to make this story complete, I also hope to photograph surface wildlife that lives in and around these various marine environments. So I loaded my gear into the van and headed off to the airport. Joining me on this assignment was my assistant Mauricio Handler, who has worked with me on several recent NGM assignments and is a tremendous help in my work. We flew from Boston to Washington, DC and then direct to Tokyo. About an hour after we landed in Tokyo, my friend Hiroko Drogin arrived, flying in from San Diego. Hiro (as she prefers to be called) is Japanese and moved to the United States six years ago. Four years ago Hiro married Steve Drogin, a world-class diver with an incredible depth of knowledge about the sea and a dear friend of mine for over fifteen years. Hiro had agreed to help our project by serving as a Japanese translator, something I desperately needed! After spending the night in Tokyo, we climbed aboard another plane the next morning and were on our way to Hokkaido.
My plan is to work specifically in the Shiretoko Peninsula region of Hokkaido, which is the eastern most part of the island and juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk. In 2005 Shiretoko was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After landing at the airport here, we drove about 1½ hours to the town of Rausu, located on the coast. Rausu is a narrow little fishing village with mountains on one side and ocean on the other. We met with Seki Katsunori, an expert diver who owns a dive shop here, and unloaded our gear. I had shipped 11 cases of equipment to Rausu prior to my arrival and then brought another 12 with me on the plane (ice diving and photography are extremely equipment intensive!).
I awoke the next morning around 2:00AM (jet lag …) and finally got up at 4:30. Mauricio and I headed out into the frosty morning air and walked downtown to have a look at the early morning activities. The harbor was alive with fishermen and boats firing up their diesels, preparing gear, and beginning their steam out to sea. The ice was especially thick and the boats had a hard time making headway. I stood on the break wall making pictures as the boats fought their way against the heavy ice, breaking it with their bows and pushing it aside. Less than an hour later, the boats were all cruising back into the harbor. Evidently the ice was too thick outside and they were unable to get offshore. Temperatures hover at around 18-degrees Fahrenheit this morning. Clearly, … this is not an easy place to work …
Photograph by Brian Skerry
After breakfast, we spent the next 9 hours unpacking cases and prepping photo and dive gear. Drysuits, heavy undergarments, boots, hoods, ice hoods, camera housings, strobes, strobe arms, tripods, regulators, buoyancy compensators, weight belts, and so on. Everything accounted for and assembled in hopes of shooting on and under the ice tomorrow. Over a traditional Japanese dinner, I asked about a million questions of Seki-san about jellyfish, sculpin, shrimp and lump suckers. I also asked about sea eagles and sea ice.
At the beginning of every assignment my mind is filled with pictures I hope to make, and gathering expert local knowledge from guys like Seki-san is a big help. I think about how the story might unfold, the type of photos I want, and the type of photos I need. Having worked as an assignment photographer for National Geographic magazine for ten years now, I know that the images have to be great. And I also know that working with wildlife, especially underwater can be unpredictable. The animals just might not be there, weather might prevent us from getting out, or even if we do get out, the visibility might be poor making photography difficult. Add cold water to that and everything is harder. Equipment doesn’t work as well, batteries drain faster, and fingers and toes freeze. But the lure of elusive, beautiful photos is a powerful motivator and I absolutely could not wait to get out to sea.