Explorer of the Abyss: The famous whale photographer, who has created indelible images of ocean life at National Geographic for more than 35 years, still has many seas to discover.
On January 11th, 1963, my father rode a whale." This is how Charles "Flip" Nicklin explains the event that changed not only his father's life but his own as well. His dad, Chuck Nicklin, owned a dive shop called the Diving Locker in San Diego. His father had learned to skin dive in Hawaii during World War II and had continued it as a hobby. Scuba diving was still a new, exotic activity for most people at the time, but Chuck taught his son, Flip, to dive at an early age. Both of them also tried their hands at underwater photography.
One day, while diving with friends, Chuck Nicklin and his buddies spotted a whale tangled up in a gill net's anchor line. The Bryde's whale was floating in the water and didn't react to the divers. They all swam around it, petted it and took some photographs.
Finally, Chuck climbed up on its back and one of the guys took his picture waving at the camera. When Chuck finally untangled the line from the whale's fluke, it swam away, but the story was far from over.
The photo of Chuck on the whale ran in newspapers all across the country, got Chuck on TV and caught the eye of Bates Littlehales, a pioneering underwater photographer for National Geographic magazine. Littlehales was working on a story about gray whales and needed to consult a whale expert. This contact would introduce Flip Nicklin to a whole new world.
"Bates got in touch with my dad as a whale expert, because he had seen one," Flip explains. "I was about 16 or 17 when I met Bates, and Bates was my role model for what you should do with a camera. He's the guy that got me interested in underwater photography and introduced me to National Geographic."
That was 40 years ago. Today, Flip Nicklin is the point man for whale photography at National Geographic. He was one of the first photographers to swim with whales and capture them in their natural environments. Though he's dived in every ocean on earth, worked extreme hours and braved hostile locations in search of his stunning photographs, he remains surprisingly humble and self-deprecating about his work.
"For most of my career, if I was sitting in a bar and someone asked what I did, I couldn't tell them without them thinking I was just completely full of it," he says. But with the recent publication of his retrospective photography book and memoir, "Among Giants: A Life with Whales," Nicklin is finally getting the wider recognition and respect he's due. His is a life lived with passion and commitment to photography, whales and conservation.
Getting feet wet at Geographic
In their early days with the magazine, both Nicklin and his father became diving instructors for most of the photographers at the National Geographic. Working with these professionals taught Nicklin how to be a photographer.
"One of the people I taught to dive was Jonathan Blair, and he had a three-month assignment to go to the northwest Hawaiian chain and shoot a story," Flip Nicklin says. "This was in 1976, and they hired me to run logistics. So for three months I was with him, Steve Uzzell and, part of the time, Bates Littlehales, and they talked about photography every day and night for three months. So it was really a heck of a photography course just by having dinner with them every night."
After his informal "classes" in Hawaii, Nicklin did the odd assignment here and there, working for scientific consulting firms, San Diego's SeaWorld and whoever else would hire him. The jobs were spaced out just enough to keep Nicklin going as a photographer.
In 1978 he traveled to National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., in order to pitch some story ideas and get to know the staff. There he met Bob Gilka, the director of photography, and even showed some of his photos to Gilbert Grosvenor, the legendary editor-in-chief. His visit resulted in several small assignments that would lead to much more.
Swimming with giants
The next year, Nicklin and his dad went to photograph humpback whales off the island of Maui, a gathering place for whales to sing, breed and give birth. Chuck Nicklin, a respected underwater cinematographer in his own right, was shooting a documentary about humpback whales called "Nomads of the Deep." Flip came along to shoot still images. They met Jim Darling, who was leading a group of graduate students in studying the whales and recording their "songs." This chance meeting led to a lifelong collaboration between Flip Nicklin and Darling.
One day they spotted one of the singing whales in the water 50 feet below the research boat. Darling asked Flip to dive down to the whale, without an air tank, and photograph the animal in a special way. "This was the first time we found a singing whale and saw that it was stationary while it was singing," Nicklin says. "And my first job was going down and ‘sexing' him — taking a picture of his genitals — which seemed like a pretty strange thing to do. It was a free-diving deal, so there were no bubbles to disturb the whale, and I took these pictures. Well, it worked, and Jim invited me to come back the next year and volunteer to work with them."
Every winter after that, Nicklin would join Darling and the grad students and help them out in their research by documenting their work and photographing the whales. It wasn't long before Nicklin got a call from National Geographic. Since they were funding the research that Darling and his crew were doing, any pictures Nicklin took belonged to the Geographic.
The photo editor, Mary Smith, asked to see his images. On the strength of those photos, the Geographic sent Nicklin back the next year on assignment to photograph the humpback whales. These images eventually became an article, "New Light on the Singing Whales," in April 1982. After that, Nicklin became the resident whale expert for the magazine, a role that would define his career for the rest of his life.
Wet, cold work
The technology involved in photographing underwater has changed a lot since Flip Nicklin and his dad started taking pictures beneath the waves. The first camera they used was a Rolleimarin: a twin-lens reflex, medium-format Rolleiflex camera in an underwater housing waterproofed to 330 feet. It was big and bulky, and the film was slow. When shooting for National Geographic, they used Nikonos 35mm underwater cameras.
With the advent of digital technology, things changed for the better, according to Nicklin. "I grew up shooting 80 ASA, and now I'm shooting 3000," he says. "You can have speed and depth of field — what an idea!" These days, instead of the Nikonos he used to work with, Nicklin is using a Nikon D3 in a Sea & Sea housing.
The increase in ISO capability for digital cameras has been a blessing, especially when it comes to photographing whales, Nicklin says. Because of their size and the distances you have to be from them to photograph the entire whale, he has had to depend on natural lighting when working underwater. Flashes are impractical and too intrusive in that environment.
Another, more profound advantage to shooting digital is the issue of color correction for underwater shooting. Nicklin is very enthusiastic about all the changes digital cameras have brought. "I love the output. The digital stuff is great," he says. "You have choices, and you get to see the stuff right away and it's pretty easy to color correct. What we've been doing is putting a white spot on our [swim] fin, so you get down and stick your fin out, take a picture of it and, in Lightroom, you just touch the white spot to get your color. It gets you in the ballpark. When I started, all I used was Kodachrome. This is so much better than what we were doing with film."
Growing up in Southern California and working in Hawaii didn't really prepare Flip for his biggest personal challenge: photographing whales in the Arctic Ocean. Going underwater in 29.5˚F was not what he was used to, but for nearly 10 years he traveled to and photographed in the waters of the far north.
The remote locations where whales congregated in the Arctic presented many challenges. Camps set up on ice floes could drift out to sea with little or no warning. Sometimes he had to skip his snowmobile over the open leads between the floes, unsure if he would plummet into the frigid water. Curious polar bears were also a constant threat and could easily blend in with the snow and fog. Once, after an Arctic shoot, he discovered that the O-ring seals had failed on his Nikonos, which had filled up with ice and was ruined.
Besides the impossible conditions, one of the hardest parts of marine mammal photography is the waiting. Just finding an animal to photograph — even though they are very large — is fiendishly difficult in something as vast as an ocean. And even when Flip manages to find a whale despite the weather and ocean conditions, he must wait still longer to observe behavior interesting enough to merit photographing.
Sometimes, however, especially in the early years, any kind of image was good enough. "When I went to do narwhals, after three and a half months my film review was ‘Nothing usable, yet.' I was sure my career was over," Nicklin recalls. "And when I did sperm whales, in six months I had four rolls of film shot underwater. … We didn't know where the whales were — all the science was new, and every image you got was brand new. If it was in focus and properly exposed, or close to it, it was a successful picture." Nicklin's enormous collection of images today is the hard-won fruit from a self-imposed grueling schedule that lasted for decades. For nearly 27 years, Flip spent eight months of the year on location.
State of the whales
People's relationship to whales has always been a complicated one, Nicklin says. In the distant past, they were seen as monsters of the deep, leviathans that destroyed ships and ate men whole. Then they became commodities to be hunted for their oil, meat and tissues. This led to overhunting in some cases and placed many whales on the Endangered Species List.
There was a time when many scientists and activists assumed that whales would soon become extinct, and people began "Save the Whales" campaigns in response. In the 1970s, another whale was created in the public's imagination — the magical, mystical whale of the deep blue abyss. Now we are actively trying to understand the realities of these marine mammals and their place in the natural world, and Nicklin's images have become a major force in this movement.
Though the bans on whale hunting have helped to restore whale populations, challenges are far from over, Nicklin says. Climate change is melting the polar ice caps, which will lower the salt content of our oceans, raise the sea level and significantly change ocean current and weather patterns. And then there is the danger of pollution and garbage ruining our oceans.
"The oceans are in peril," he adds. "We are on an unsustainable track, and I don't know what we're going to do about that. It seems fairly clear that we can't keep going the way we are."
But for the moment, whales are doing well and, in some cases, are being taken off the Endangered Species List. While this is undeniably good news, it presents new challenges for the relationship between people and whales. How do we live together going forward?
"It's gone from ‘Can we save whales?' — when I started in the '70s — to ‘How will we get along with recovering whales?' Will they be protected, or will they become prey again?" he asks. "How will increasing numbers of whales fit into our human world?"
Nicklin compares the state of today's whales to the world's few remaining wild places, such as Banff National Park in Canada.
"You've got these beautiful valleys with an ecosystem in place, and a few people move in so they can become part of that wonderful ecosystem," he says. "Then more people move in because they really want to see what's there — it's so nice! — and pretty soon, there's so many people that they start complaining that there's too many bears. There's actually a fraction of the bears that were there in the beginning, but now they're [considered by some to be] a pest."
Nicklin fears that those same issues will surface with whales as their population continues to recover. "It dawns on people that we all share the same environment, we all eat some of the same stuff, and how we handle that, I hope, will bring out the best in us."
The next horizon
It's hard to overstate Flip Nicklin's contributions to the field of whale research. He not only showed us a new world but made it possible for scientists to get their research out to a broader audience — and the scientists are more than grateful for the exposure.
Jonathan Stern, who teaches marine ecology at San Francisco State University, says, "In this field, you know you've made it if Flip calls you up and wants to talk to you or go out on a boat with you to photograph what you're doing."
While most people agree that Nicklin's whale photography is unparalleled in the field, he contributes other things that are just as valuable.
"What really gets me excited about his work is the combination of art and science," says Meagan Jones, executive director of the Whale Trust, a research and education organization she founded with Jim Darling and Nicklin in 2001. "For him, it's more than capturing that one magical moment in the life of a whale; it's the combination of the photograph with its story and context that brings it to life and gives it meaning. And Flip has this magnetic personality that really allows people to get excited about whales and the oceans. He has this way of bringing people together with whales and the ocean in a way that's fun, scientific and inspirational."
For Flip Nicklin, his new book, "Among Giants," is just the latest achievement in a long career. In considering his accomplishments — groundbreaking photography, multiple stories for the National Geographic, several books, the co-founding of the Whale Trust, educating the public, and being an advocate for whales — it's obvious that he is far from finished with this subject and this work. Flip is always looking to the horizon to see what's coming next.
"A big part of this book," he adds, "was to put an ending chapter to it — get it all together and out there, and then see what other fun things there are to do."
IN THE LOUPE: Flip Nicklin
Home/Studio Location: Auke Bay, Alaska (12 miles north of Juneau)
Published Books: "Among Giants: A Life with Whales"; "Face to Face with Dolphins"; "Face to Face with Whales"; "Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries"; "Whales and Dolphins in Question," with Jim Mead
Recent Awards/Accolades: Fellow of the Explorers Club and board member of the American Cetacean Society; NANPA recently announced that he will receive their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012
Preferred Equipment: The Nikon D3 with the Sea & Sea D3 underwater housing; Nikon D700
Hobbies: Bike riding, fishing, walking
Inspirations/influences: Bates Littlehales and David Doubilet. "My father," he adds.
Advice to aspiring photographers: "I'm an editorial shooter," he says. "I like telling stories, and I like hearing stories. So make your own pictures and tell stories. You don't have to show a picture of the story, but there has to be a story behind the picture."