Bottlenose dolphins in Honduras by Brian Skerry

(Photo: © Brian Skerry/National Geographic; photograph produced under NMFS permit #17941)

"Relative to body size, the brains of bottlenose dolphins, like these at the Roatán Institute in Honduras, are among the largest in the animal kingdom. Scientists are attempting to decode dolphins' complex vocalizations."

Nat Geo May 2015 cover dolphin by brian skerryCracking the code on dolphin intelligence

As both a marine wildlife photographer and a passionate conservationist, Brian Skerry is famous for captivating people around the world with his visual storytelling.

For his latest assignment, Skerry spent the better part of two years traveling to nine different locations across the Western Hemisphere to observe and photograph the unique cognitive behaviors of dolphins, one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth.

The culmination of Skerry's work can be found in the May 2015 edition of National Geographic magazine (cover at right). The exquisite images are paired with Joshua Foer's fascinating story, "It's Time for a Conversation," which explores how researchers are working to understand and break down the communication barrier between dolphins and humans.

"For me, this story is another way to get people to appreciate and care for the ocean," Skerry tells MNN. "It's about science, it's about intelligence, it's about cognition and it's about these amazing animals that are in the sea that charm a lot of people for a lot of different reasons."

Continue below for an interview with Skerry about his experience working with these dolphins — interspersed with just a few of the brilliant photographs he captured for the assignment. Check out all of Skerry's dolphin images on this National Geographic photo gallery or pick up a hard copy of the magazine's May edition at your local newsstand or bookstore.

Dusky dolphins with bait balls by Brian Skerry

Photo: © Brian Skerry/National Geographic

"Intensely social, dolphins work together on ingenious feeding strategies. Dusky dolphins off Patagonia herd anchovies into neat spheres and then take turns gulping. Two birds, a Magellanic penguin and a shearwater, join the frenzy."

MNN: What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered on this assignment?

Brian Skerry: Working with any wild animals — particularly in the ocean — is always a challenge in itself. There's weather to contend with and poor visibility, but sometimes the animals just might not be that interested in you. As an underwater photographer, I usually have to get very close to my subjects — usually within a couple meters — to make a decent image, and that really relies on the animal allowing me into their world. There were a lot of days where the dolphins were socializing and doing their own thing, and were not the least bit interested in me.

Another challenge was that because this story was focused on cognition, it was really about looking at the ways we can see that dolphins are smart. I was trying to capture specific behaviors, so one of the big things I was looking for was unique feeding strategies. Dolphins are one of the only animals in the world that have created their own feeding strategies [dependent] on where in the world they're located.

So, for example, in Patagonia with dusky dolphins, I was trying to photograph something that hadn't really been photographed before. It was [a behavior in which] dusky dolphins collectively use communication and sound to aggregate bait balls of anchovies. Once the anchovies were all in a tight ball, [the dolphins] charged through to feed. That was extremely difficult to shoot. I was there for three weeks and the weather was bad, and on the few days where we could go out, we would see the dolphins, but either they really weren't doing that behavior or I just couldn't get the image I needed. Then, literally, in the last 10 minutes of our very last day, I was able to get that one picture (above).

The same thing happened in Hawaii. I was trying to get photos of spinner dolphins playing this fascinating leaf game where they would pick up leaves that naturally fell in the water and then play catch and pass them around to each other. I was able to get that shot early one morning in a little cove with very low light conditions – but only after weeks of trying to get the shot.

Spinner dolphins in Hawaii by Brian Skerry

Photo: © Brian Skerry/National Geographic

"Spinner dolphins return from foraging to a bay off Oahu, Hawaii. Garrulous and gregarious, spinners gather in groups that can number in the thousands."

Can you recall any memorable moments you experienced while working with the dolphins?

Just being able to have a ringside seat to view these behaviors was amazing, though I have to go back to that time I spent with the spinner dolphins in Hawaii (pictured above). These are highly social dolphins — probably the most social, and they've never successfully been kept in captivity because they need to be in large groups. Because of this, you'll almost never see a single or even a pair of spinner dolphins.

These animals go offshore in the afternoon and evenings to spend all night in deep water foraging and feeding, and in the mornings, they come back into shallower bays and coves to rest and sleep. It was that time of day when I would go in and very unobtrusively watch what they were doing and observe their social behaviors. It was amazing — you'd see moms and calves and aunts all sort of touching and being tactile.

Most of the time in Hawaii, I was working off a boat, but for a couple days I walked in off the beach where they can sometimes be seen in these little coves. I was told that they hadn't been seen there for weeks. Even so, I decided to go that morning, and as luck would have it, they were there. And I got this one picture of three spinner dolphins just adorned with leaves — on their dorsal fins, tail, pectorals. To be able to see and photograph that was really special.

Spotted dolphins

Photo: © Brian Skerry/National Geographic

"Spotted dolphins swim off the northern Bahamas, where the waters are exceptionally clear. Three generations of these social animals — 300 individuals over 30 years — have been the subject of the longest-running underwater dolphin study in the world, led by Denise Herzing."

What was the most illuminating thing you learned about dolphins on this assignment that you didn't know before?

The thing that I have come away with is that as much as we know about dolphins, I don't think we know anything.

This is an animal that, after humans, has the biggest brain relative to body size in the animal kingdom. So, there's us, and then there's dolphins. And yet, for such a big brain, we know they're super intelligent, but I don't think we really comprehend how they're using those big brains. These animals are like an alien intelligence on Earth.

We know that they have a very sophisticated social hierarchy. We know that they can use tools. We know that they communicate. We know that they see their world acoustically — you know, using sonar, which is very different form us. If you jump in the water with a dolphin, it knows everything about you. Yet, there's so much more about them that we don't understand. There's some tremendous researchers doing great work out there, but for all the years they've been studied, we still don't really get it.

Dusky dolphins out of water

Photo: © Brian Skerry/National Geographic

"Dolphins communicate with their bodies as well as with sounds. A dusky dolphin catapulting through the air off the coast of Patagonia may be sending a signal to other dolphins: The food here is good. Come and get it."

What role do you think photography plays in conservation work?

I think it plays a huge role in conservation. I became a conservation photographer because I was seeing and bearing witness to the degradation of our world's oceans. I saw a lot of problems that I don't think are evident to most people, and what most people need to change that equation are images.

Human beings are very visual creatures. We respond emotionally to a photograph. I would argue that since the advent of photography, we mark all of our historic events — whether they're celebrations of tragedies — through photos. From Matthew Brady's photos of the Civil War to men landing on the moon, we think of those iconic moments with those single still frames in our heads. And for me, it's about making those kinds of pictures in nature to get people to care or change their behaviors.

I think we need both celebratory photos — beautiful images that allow a glimpse into an animal's world — as well as more harder-hitting pictures — the war photography pictures that show what's going on out there that's not so pretty. It's these kind of images that inspire people to change their behavior or become active in a way that can bring about positive change.

 
* * * 
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.