Behind the Photo: An Underwater Close Encounter of the Third Kind

Southern Right Whale, (Eubalaena australis) approaches Brian Skerry's assistant underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand (sub Antarctic islands).
A southern right whale, (Eubalaena australis) approaches Brian Skerry’s assistant underwater off the Auckland Islands, New Zealand. (Photo by Brian Skerry)

Right whales as a whole probably don’t watch a lot of science fiction films, but if they did, the right whale in this shot by National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry would certainly be telling friends about its “Close Encounter” with an alien life form.

In a video interview, Skerry explains that he had “an absolutely, off-the-scale, magical experience with a population of southern right whales” in the sub-Antarctic island of New Zealand. This population had only been discovered ten years prior, and the photographed encounter was the first time the group of whales had witnessed humans dropping from the surface into their underwater universe. The friendly, bus-sized whales seemed eager to meet their new neighbors.

“It was a stunning scene—a 45-foot-long, 70-ton right whale hovering over the bottom of the ocean, just a few feet away from a diver … At some point, I stopped swimming and knelt on the sand to catch my breath, and I was certain the whale would just keep going. Instead, the whale also stopped, turned, and hovered over me as it stared with its soulful eye. A few seconds later, I resumed swimming alongside the whale, taking pictures, and savoring every second,” Skerry said.

Using his images to communicate, Skerry has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater telling the oceans’ stories. He dives eight months of the year, often in extreme conditions beneath Arctic ice or in predator-infested waters—and has even lived at the bottom of the sea to get close to his subjects.

If you’re in Singapore, you can join Brian Skerry at Esplanade Theatres on the Bay on January 24—or you can catch him in Australia this October. Join Skerry on an underwater adventure and get the story behind others of his famous photographs. For more information, or to buy tickets, please visit National Geographic Live.


  1. Gillian O'Malley
    September 15, 2016, 8:53 pm

    Is it possible to buy a professional quality copy of this photograph for personal use (diver’s home)

  2. Don
    October 7, 2015, 9:40 am

    For those who don’t know , these whales were named for being the “right” whale for whalers to hunt in the Waybackwhen. They supplied large amounts of whale oil, and their baleen filtering plates were in great demand for ladies girdles, lol.