In the very early days of his career, Flip Nicklin was more like a human Mars rover than a wildlife photographer, a reverse rocket sent to collect images of creatures about whom, for the most part, next to nothing was known.
As such, his talents as a budding photographer were not nearly as important as other skills — including his sense of adventure, his respect for scientific research, and his physical competence as a diver, including his ability to shoot underwater while holding his breath.
“For 10 years, if I could get close to a whale, have it in focus and in the middle, it was a good whale picture,” Nicklin said with a laugh.
When Nicklin got his start in the late 1970s, few underwater images of whales had been circulated, and the massive animals themselves were largely ignored, except by hunters. Nicklin was able to document things few humans had ever witnessed.
Now a world-renowned photographer with an enormous store of images, Nicklin claims he’s still learning his craft — but one look at his new book “Among Giants,” makes it clear he’s had stunning success in mastering his difficult subject. The book’s images can easily be appreciated on their own — as riveting images of amazing creatures, as postcards from a wild frontier — but the experience of viewing them becomes even richer when they are paired with text, as they are here. Through Nicklin’s voice, we learn about the researchers, projects and personal memories that have been part of his amazing and unique underwater experiences.
For Nicklin himself, the book represents a “love letter to research.” The giants of the title refers to the researchers themselves as much as to the whales, he said.
“What I like about it is, I can say good things about the researchers they might not say about themselves and I hope this comes across.”
The reverse is also true — the researchers input, included in the form of short essays, provides a perspective on Nicklin’s contributions, not only to their projects but to our collective understanding about whales.
In the book’s introduction, researcher Jim Darling writes:
“For three decades, researchers chased the science and Flip took the pictures. His pictures have had a huge influence on how we see whales. I mean huge. I mean way beyond the impact of the science. They let us see and imagine a real animal rather than a mythical beast, or whaling ‘unit.’”
Nicklin averaged eight months a year in the field for 27 years, working with top researchers for months at a time on a particular species, and completing more than 20 assignments for National Geographic alone. As a result of his experiences, he has a unique view on whales as a whole — a broad perspective on more than 30 species — and on the latest developments in whale research.
Now based in Juneau, where he lives with his wife, biologist Linda Nicklin, Nicklin remains an active diver and photographer, working to promote whale research through the non-profit he founded, the Whale Trust. Though his experiences among giants would give him a reasonable excuse to push his own personal message about whales, this doesn’t appear to be Nicklin’s way: he refrains from making simple statements about the best way to approach complex issues. Rather, he allows his work and that of the researchers to feed our curiosity, stimulate discussion and, perhaps, bring a little scientific perspective to emotion-based rhetoric.
From snakes to whales
Long before whales, it was snakes. As a kid, Nicklin amassed a collection, beginning with a five-foot bull snake he talked his neighbor out of killing. The neighbor agreed to spare it if Nicklin would take it home, where neighborhood kids wouldn’t run into it.
“So I went home and — I remember being fairly little — and I had this big long snake around my neck, and I went to my mom and asked if I could keep it.”
His mother didn’t flinch — a fact that became even more remarkable to Nicklin after he learned, many years later, that she was terrified of snakes. Nicklin, unaware of this, soon had 16 cages in the backyard.
“I don’t remember her showing any signs of distress through the whole thing,” Nicklin said.
“She didn’t want to do anything to discourage (me and my brother) from going after the things we wanted to go after,” he said.
Nicklin’s father, the famous diver and underwater filmmaker Chuck Nicklin, was also highly encouraging and extremely influential on his son.
“From the first days, I can’t remember ever wanting to do some adventurous thing and not having (my parents) go, ‘Sure!’.
From his father, Nicklin also inherited a love of diving and the opportunity to practice the craft. Chuck Nicklin owned a dive shop, beginning when young Flip was 11. In addition to learning to dive, Nicklin was constantly surrounded by people who took the activity seriously.
“If you were a diver, you didn’t dive one day, go mountain bike riding the next — you dove, and those were the guys we knew,” Nicklin said.
Nicklin remembers his dad’s friends diving for abalone and then hiding it in tide pools for the then five-year-old Flip and his brother to find. He also remembers his dad and his great-uncle Marcos discussing diving in the back of Chuck’s Market, the family’s business before the dive shop opened. Marcos’ perspective on diving was a bit darker than Chuck’s: A former “hard-hat” diver who worked on building piers along the coast, Marcos was stooped, walked with a cane and had several fingers missing.
“His stories were somewhat horrifying,” Nicklin said, adding that those views of diving made an interesting juxtaposition to his dad’s.
Nicklin later learned that Marcos’ brother Charles, Nicklin’s grandfather, drowned in a diving accident the year before Nicklin was born.
Undeterred by the darker side of diving, Nicklin continued to feed his interest through his teen years. His dad’s dive shop frequently hosted scientists from Scripps Research Institute, as well as all types of photographers. Nicklin’s dad was a founding member of the San Diego Underwater Photographic Society. National Geographic photographers such as Bates Littlehales and Jonathan Blair also spent time at the shop. Nicklin didn’t know much about the craft, but was able to gather a lot of information from listening to the men talk. His first assignment was as a diving assistant for a project Blair was covering in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge in 1976.
“I had no skills but I spent three months with these guys talking about photography all the time.
He never came back to diving business — but never really left it either.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew diving was going to be a part of it,” he said.
While accompanying his dad on a trip to Hawaii to photograph humpbacks, Nicklin met and began working with a group of young researchers. Nicklin, who could free dive without an air tank to depths of 100 feet, was often asked to photograph the whales. (Tanks were not ideal because the bubbles and noise could distract the whales or cause them to move off.) Nicklin helped the researchers determine that the males were the ones doing the singing, a significant discovery. And his experience with the researchers made a huge impact.
“When the whale thing popped up, I went, ‘Oh yeah, this is where I belong,’” Nicklin said.
His first story with his byline “Singing Whales” was published in National Geographic in 1982.
He decided to focus on still photography, rather than film like his dad, in part because that was an easier way to get onto the research trips.
“Maybe part of it was competition, but mainly I could go along and be that one guy, with my still camera doing the story and research, and I liked that a lot. I still like that a lot.”
Having Chuck Nicklin as his dad was a tremendous advantage in breaking into the field, he said. Now in his 80s, Chuck Nicklin is still leading adventure dive trips around the world and continues to be an inspiration to his son.
“I’ve given up on the idea that I can ever catch up with him,” Nicklin said. “Just being in the same ballpark is good enough.”
When Nicklin came into underwater research photography, no one — not even the reseachers themselves — quite knew what to expect from the whales. Orcas, narwhals, sperm whales, very little of their behavior been documented underwater.
Partly for this reason, only a handful of people (like Nicklin’s dad) were “willing to get within a few feet” of wild whales when Nicklin started his career, according to Darling’s introduction. No one knew how they might react to human presence or how any aggressive tendencies might be expressed, particularly when it came to species like orcas and narwhals.
“The guys who were the most passionate defenders would go, “I don’t know if this is going to be OK or not!” the first time you did it,” Nicklin said. “It was pretty exciting.”
Nicklin didn’t witness aggressive behavior from the orcas or any other species, but he says he was “often” afraid during his early dives. That didn’t keep him out of the water though, and in many cases he was rewarded by images that opened new windows. He captured the first-ever photos of orca whales at “rubbing beaches” — where they’d rub their backs against stones on the ocean floor. He was also able to shoot a lone male sperm whale coming back into the society of female and young whales — a social interaction researchers had not documented. Adult male sperm whales, who had rarely been seen in social situations, can stay out alone in colder waters for up to 20 years before they return to warm waters to mate.
“We never seen — I’d never seen, the researchers had never seen — the whales come back in.”
Nicklin’s photo shows the female and young whales surrounding the male, touching him with their heads.
For his part, Nicklin always tried to allow the whales to behave as naturally as possible — he doesn’t seem to have spent much time trying to “bond” or communicate with them — not from a lack of interest but from an appreciation for his role as a researcher. When asked if he often felt as though the whales he was shooting were looking him in the eye, Nicklin said, “It’s sort of fun when you get a friendly (whale) coming up and looking at you ... but that’s not the story I’m working on telling.”
“What I really want is an animal that will tolerate me being there while it’s doing cool stuff so I can take a picture of it.”
Though Nicklin has taken part in 10 previous book projects, this is the first one where he’s contributed a long narrative and strung his stories together, a task he completed with help from Karen Kostyal, a writer and editor from National Geographic. During morning walks, Nicklin dictated the stories into a tape recorder, and his wife Linda transcribed them. They ended up with about 30 stories. Kostyal then made periodic visits to the Nicklin home to coax out more details, in some cases discovering details about Nicklin’s life and family that he hadn’t even known himself. For example, the fact that Nicklin’s great-grandfather arrived in San Diego on a whaling ship.
“It was like therapy,” Nicklin said. “She started opening all these doors.”
The book, published by The University of Chicago Press, has already been lauded in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. It intersperses Nicklin’s stories with brief essays from researchers, who like Nicklin, are the first to admit the limitations of their understanding, highlighting the fact that though much knowledge has been gained, whale research is a dynamic field.
In one essay, wildlife consultant Glenn Williams discusses the complex issue of climate change.
“I don’t think the science about the impact of climate change is being approached open-mindedly enough,” he writes. From his vantage point in the Canadian arctic, Williams has seen an increase in bear populations, and shifts — rather than declines — in some whale populations.
“We’re spotting narwhals in areas where we didn’t see them before,” he writes.
Like Williams, Nicklin avoids simplistic approaches to complex issues. During discussions about whales, he often finds that people have held on to ideas about them that they probably formed long ago, when they first became aware of the issues.
“If I think about Moscow, it’s cold and miserable, with empty stores, long lines and black bread. But that’s not Moscow today. And whales are the same thing. Our view and our knowledge is changing all the time but most people are sort of fixed with ‘Well they’re all endangered, foreigners hurt them.’ They’ve got a few facts from the first time they thought about them. But the dynamic part of it is what really makes them interesting.”
Nicklin doesn’t seem interested in challenging people about their opinions, rather he points toward where they might find more information. If anything, he encourages self-examination and tolerance of those who may hold a different opinion than our own.
“Its easy to get really lost in unexamined rhetoric,” he said.
As a journalist, Nicklin has made a point of informing himself on both sides of an issue. For example, he has spent time with whale hunters in Japan and in the Arctic, and feels a purely emotional response to such complex issues is insufficient.
“It’s a really good question — what do you take, what don’t you take, why do you do that. What I don’t think you can do is save everything cute, eat everything tasty and have a working system out of that. You have to ask bigger questions on that stuff. The emotional stuff is very strong and important, but the decision-making has to be on a more rational level.”
In 2001, Nicklin co-founded the Whale Trust, a non-profit formed to support whale and marine research, and to build outreach programs based on that research. He also remains an active diver and photographer, and says the switch to digital has opened up a whole new world of creative possibility.
After nearly three decades of life on the go during which three weeks at home was the norm, Nicklin said he was glad to put down some roots in Juneau, a decision he made after meeting his wife, Linda, on a National Geographic Expedition cruise ship where both were guest lecturers. The couple live in Auke Bay, and also have a house in Maui, where they spend three months of the year.
“I love Juneau. I’ve made good friends and it’s a place where what I do is part of the fabric of the community,” Nicklin said.
Nicklin said he thinks his contributions to whale research will be duplicated in the years to come -- though it’s unlikely that a single photographer will have the impact that he has had -- but he doubts any one else will be able to claim to have as much fun as he’s had.
“A kid from San Diego from a dive shop, ended up traveling the world looking at whales for 30 years — how can you beat that?”
Nicklin and his wife Linda will be among the authors featured during Hearthside Books’ second annual WIldlife Authors at Sea cruise this Friday. Other authors include Joe Upton, Lynn Schooler, Kathy Hocker, Jay and Jayleen Beedle, Mandy Lindeberg, Cathy Connor, Mary Lou King, Lizzie Ekins, Nick Jans, and Mary Willson. Books will be available on board, and each author will give a small presentation of their work. Authors will also be available for informal questions and discussions during the cruise.
The boat boards at Statter Harbor, below DeHart’s, at 5:30 p.m., Friday, June 3, and departs at 6 p.m.
The $50 ticket price includes complimentary wine tasting provided by John DeCherney of Specialty Imports. Light refreshments will be provided. For more information visit www.hearthsidebooks.com/.