"We're Destroying the Most Amazing Thing in Our Lives" -- Interview With Polar Photographer Paul Nicklen


South Georgia Island. Wildlife photojournalist Paul Nicklen says he seeks "intimate" images of animals like this elephant seal. Sometimes that poses risks. To his life. See below for more details on the elephant seal who tried to crush him. (The seal weighed more than a one-ton Ford pickup truck.) Also, check out the video clip below for more on his philosophy of photography. (c) Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

Paul Nicklen
has a penchant for polar photography -- usually underwater and often under ice as well. Nicklen's mission is to chronicle Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems threatened by climate change. His modus operandi is to use a wide-angle lens and get as close as possible to what he calls "mega fauna" predators like leopard seals or polar bears. He likes being alone so much that his idea of the perfect vacation is three months absolutely solo in the wilderness. Sound extreme?

The Annenberg Foundation thought so. They have included Nicklen among five photographers showcased in the "Extreme Exposure" exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. The exhibition, which runs through April 17, has both a conservationist and an adventure theme, showing images of "rarely seen moments in the life of our planet."

Nicklen, who shoots for National Geographic Magazine and has published a book with Nat Geo called Polar Obsession (2009), last month gave one of the IRIS lectures held regularly at the Space for Photography. Here's a short video excerpt.

The full video of the lecture can be seen on the Annenberg Space for Photography site here.

Paul Nicklen and I spoke by phone on the day of his lecture. Normally, I work the interview responses into a narrative. But he was such a great story-teller and spokesman for the ice and the life cycle it supports that I thought an interview format would better serve Huffington Post readers -- interspersed with photos, of course.

Is there an area of your work that you feel hasn't been written about adequately?

I think that's a great question. It's a tricky one... I go out and I do a coverage on, say, leopard seals or polar bears, and I'm using these incredible, iconic, sexy charismatic mega fauna to get people to really care about the ecosystem. [But] we're such a fear-based species that people start looking at leopard seals, and all they address is their fear towards this one predator.

That's important and I think that's good. But more importantly, if you don't have an ecosystem, you're not going to have that species. If we lose ice, we'll lose the entire Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems ultimately. I want people to get the bigger message.

Would that extend to changing people's behavior?

Definitely. Ultimately that's my goal. Say for example people in New York. I'd say most have become disconnected with nature, living in a concrete jungle. And if they change their behavior once the streets of New York are being flooded from rising sea levels, that's going be about 200 years too late. So I'm trying to get people to really start realizing now that the lives we lead are causing the disappearance of ice and wildlife in the north and southern hemispheres.

It's just to start thinking on a global level This is one planet. It all sounds a little bit radical, but that's where I'm switching now. I've gone from being the biologist, [where I] felt ineffective, then I've gone on to being the unbiased photojournalist ... [which is] starting to leave me feeling, better than nothing, but still slightly ineffective. I'm trying to find that intricate balance between being a photojournalist and a conservationist. ... The planet is in a state right now where we're out of time, where in many places we've passed the point of no return. It's not a time to entertain people with pretty pictures or entertain people with fun, unbiased stories. It's time to get people to wake up.


(c) Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection
Nicklen loves it when people tell him a project is impossible because, he says, it gives him a goal to achieve. The above shot of narwhals in the Arctic is an example. Nicklen hails from Baffin Island in Canada. When Nicklen asked local Inuit where narwhals could be found in large numbers, they told him, but added that the sea ice was too dangerous to try to photograph there. That was all the encouragement Nicklen needed. He bought an ultra-light airplane and found the narwhals, but the ultralight's engine quit in mid-flight, over jagged ice, 150 miles from land. He kept taking pictures. "I figure if I'm going to go down I might as well shoot." Eventually the plane came back to life and he and his co-pilot were able to land it on pontoons, but then they had to wait a month on the rapidly deteriorating summer ice for a new crankshaft. Finally, it arrived and he was able to get aloft and get the photos he wanted. They landed safely. But then, while packing up, Nicklen fell through the ice, grabbing a rope to save himself but dislocating his shoulder. "My assistant Jed, his dad's an orthopedic surgeon. It took him two hours, but he was finally able to reset my shoulder Which was great. Because I was in that much pain and every time he tugged on my shoulder trying to reset it, I closed my eyes to the pain and all I saw was ivory tusks pointing to the sky and whales blowing and I knew we had the shots we needed." (Read the full tale of the narwhal adventure below my interview with Paul at the bottom of this piece.)

There's a feeling out there that the moment [for action on climate change] has come and faded a bit -- very disappointing for some of us -- and everyone's already heard that the ice is melting and is threatening these species. And yet, I was just in Atlanta, they still serve stuff in Styrofoam cups.

I know. The problem is that I've opened myself up emotionally to all these things that are going on. And it's so depressing. You're losing your friends [i.e. the Arctic animals] up there... it used to be five years ago, all we would do is debate whether climate change is real or not. And I think that 90 percent of the people get it and we're not having that debate any more and when you see that 10 percent who still don't get it, I don't waste time on that any more. I keep moving forward and try to work with the people who are getting it... My job as a journalist is to say -- if we lose ice, we lose an entire ecosystem. Ice in the Arctic and Antarctica is very much like the soil in a garden. You can't grow a garden without soil. One piece of multi-year ice has 300 organisms in it... Ice is the foundation of the whole ecosystem in the Arctic and the same for Antarctica.

My images have to be close visceral intimate portraits of these situations and scenarios and I have to bring people into these pages of National Geographic otherwise people are never going to get to witness this. If there's any chance of saving this, people have to reconnect. Most people aren't going to reconnect by being there. Hopefully my job as a photographer will allow them to do that.


"This picture means more to me than any other image I've ever taken," said Nicklen at the Annenberg Space for Photography lecture. "Diving under that ice... at first I looked up and I thought I had vertigo because the whole under-floor of the ice was just moving and I couldn't figure out what was going on so I looked closer. And it was just gazillions of amphipods and copapods which are the foundation for all species in the Arctic and the life cycles for these little amphipods and copapods, just bigger than a grain of rice, have more fat than any other animal on earth. They're just little globules of fat. And so they feed the Arctic cod which feed the seals which feed the polar bears and so the life cycle goes."(c) Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

"I grew up on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada, where we were one of the few non-Inuit families living in a small Inuit settlement. The Inuit taught me to survive in the Arctic, read the weather, and, more than anything else, appreciate patience. As a kid without television, radio, and computer games, my friends and I would spend all of our waking hours in the hills watching wildlife, weather, and the light play shadow games across the landscape. At that young age, the seed to become a nature photographer was deeply planted. " -- Paul Nicklen, from his website

What makes you happy?

What makes me happy? Being alone. I am an extrovert... Extroverts generally get their energy from a crowd, which is the biggest drain for me because it keeps me from being alone in nature where all my senses are filled. The silence is so amazing. It's deafening. Or the sound of a narwhal blowing. Or you're on the ice or camped in the mountains. That's what makes me happy.

I used to live in New Zealand. I remember hiking by myself in the South Island -- it wasn't even the native bush, it was a plantation of pines, but it was vast and isolated country. I sat down and I thought, wow, I'm the only person for square miles here. And it was a wonderful feeling but also a little bit daunting and scary. All of the open space made me keenly aware of what I was bringing into it. Of what was happening inside me... Have you ever had that feeling?

Oh yeah. The most euphoric and happy and peaceful I've been was on a three-month solo trip. Dropped off in the high Arctic miles from anybody -- with no radio contact, no nothing. Told the plane to pick me up three months later on this river tundra system. The first two weeks I was lost and miserable and lonely, but as that slipped away, it turned into the party of my life. I went through every possible emotion you could imagine. And I have not faced that euphoria since and I really think that we have evolved[ away from that]... Society and over-population. That's who we are. The human society around us, really numbs us. Really takes away from that. If I could take anybody on the planet and show them the things that I've seen. I think we'd save this planet tomorrow.

You talk about awe and wonder that's out there... As a kid I was raised Catholic. I was always trying to envision as a kid what would heaven be like. So ...as I'm in the water with the leopard seals or alone with a polar bear on the sea ice or standing under the aurora borealis, I realize that there's nothing more magical than what we have right in front of us. And I think heaven is here and now. This is it. And we've become so disconnected that we are ultimately destroying the most amazing thing in our lives. We need to wake up to that.

When did you do this three month solo mission?

I did that right between my biology career and my photo career. 1994. Dropped off in May. Picked up in August.

Were you taking pictures?

I was launching my photo career. I was going on the tundra to reevaluate my life and who I wanted to be and what kind of photographer I wanted to be. It was there on that journey that I realized that I had to tell stories that would bridge the gap between the science I had been doing and the public. And in a magazine like Nat Geo, you can reach out to 40 million people with one story.

Your time in the wilderness. Sounds like it was a real turning point in your life.

Huge. It was the turning point in my life. And I'm actually at the point where things have gone well over the last ten years - you know success and awards , but all I want to do is get back and have that moment of solitude again - whether it's on a sailboat or the mountains I'm not sure. But that's where I need to reconnect, that's why I do this because you get pretty drained on the lecture circuit. Hotels and room service.

You said you like to be alone. Does the loneliness get oppressive ever?

No. The more alone I am, the more fulfilled I feel. I feel very lonely when I'm in LA. Right now, I feel extremely lonely. It's just like you're one of billions of people on this planet. And it's a very lonely feeling. And there's someone sitting right beside you at a restaurant and you could probably do great things if you combined your resources... but people don't talk to each other. It's lonely. In the world I live in, the Canadian north, you live in small towns. But you know everybody. That's a wonderful feeling.


Nicklen says there have only been a few times in his career as a photographer when he thought "so this is how it's going to end." An encounter with this elephant seal on South Georgia Island near Antarctica was one. Read his account below. (c) Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

When you're out shooting rather large predators, do you ever fear for your life?

I have had some moments for sure, yeah... But where I'm most scared is around people. If we're under the influence [of alcohol or drugs] and we're driving or we fall asleep at the wheel. We have so many unpredictabilities with humans. But animals within a species will behave very similarly.

I've made some bad judgment calls and any time I've been almost killed by a large animal it's my fault...

Two years ago, I wanted to be the first person to film breeding elephant seals under water. These animals are anywhere from 7 to 10 thousand pounds. They're 20 feet long. They weigh more than big one ton Ford pick up truck. They're huge. So I just swam up to one in the water. And it came over and spent the next five minutes trying to kill me. It was trying to crush me. I kept going in its mouth, I keep shoving in the camera and it kept trying to crush me. I'd seen them drown and kill 1500 pound female elephant seals. And so yeah, I thought... 'So this is how it's going to end. I've always been kind of curious.' And that elephant seal was one where I thought I was done. But my assistant was way down the beach and he came running. I didn't know he was coming to get me. The seal was on top of me. My assistant was able to get his attention. And wave him off. Those type of things happen. I've been attacked by walrus. And chased by polar bears. But generally, any time there's been an incident it's been my fault. Getting too close. Generally, with these animals, if you work slow enough, they communicate their intentions...

Where did this happen with the elephant seal on the beach?

South Georgia. Antarctica. 2008.

You said something interesting, that you felt more scared of humankind than of these large predators.

Oh, for sure. We're a very unpredictable species. I have to be a bit careful here. But we ... the closest I've really come to dying is in a car. Hit by a drunk driver. Or you're on icy roads with a bunch of other bad drivers. Or people fall asleep at the wheel. I watched a guy in Washington DC get shot six times right in front of me in a drug deal gone bad. You know when I'm in big cities I feel so naked, so nervous and so not in control just because we're such an inconsistent species. Someone might be angry... you just don't know. With animals it's all very consistent. It's a beautiful consistent world. I can feel safe and let my guard down and just take it all in. And yet we sit in our cement jungles and we stress over whether... you know, we hear of a shark attack. Meanwhile 2,000 people were in car accidents that day just in the LA area alone, but all we know that day is that one person was killed by a shark in Australia and therefore we're not stressed about the shark fin soup issue which is ultimately wiping out all coral reefs. The issues are huge. We've got to get people to connect back to them. Somehow.


"We're finding more and more dead bears on the ice," said Nicklen during his Annenberg talk. "Finding dead polar bears is extremely rare. But they're now finding bears in Norway, floating in the water, where the ice is melting out from under them. They have to swim vast distances. They found a bear last month (February 2011) that had swum 800 miles, but her cubs had died. Big bears can swim long distances and survive leaner times. It's the skinnier bears that can't swim long distances because of hypothermia... Bears are [also] having less cubs. The population of polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba which is the most studied population of bears any where has already declined by 20-30 percent in the last 20 years." (c) Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Image Collection

Nicklen ended his lecture by encouraging people to commit themselves to lessening the impact of climate change. He mentioned conserving energy in our personal lives and lobbying and voting for conservation issues. Most important, though, was to "get outside, get connected with the outdoor world" and to take children with you. That connection to nature, Nicklen believes, is the key to saving our polar ecosystems.

*** See more of Paul Nicklen's images at the on-line print gallery of the Annenberg Space for Photography.

*** See the Annenberg Space for Photography's video about Nicklen here.

The Adventure of the Narwhals --
As told by Paul Nicklen at the Annenberg Space for Photography February 24, 2011:

"I talked to the Inuit -- was on the sea ice with the Inuit hunters for 10 years -- I say where do I get narwhals where I can see them. I'd been there for years. Then I got foolish enough to go to National Geographic and propose an entire story to the magazine on narwhals. Knowing very well that I might not ever see one. And National Geographic is a magazine and they remind us constantly that they publish photographs not excuses. ... Had to come back with pictures. I asked the Inuit and they said the big narwhals with the big tusks are way out there on the ice so I thought how do I get pictures of these guys and they told me that it was impossible to get pictures of them because the ice was so dangerous.

"I love when people tell me something's impossible because now I've got a goal to try and achieve. So I went home bought an ultra light airplane learned how to fly it, got a buddy of mine who's an incredible off-strip pilot asked him to join me, to [help me] get the plane up to the Arctic and we were going to fly out to these whales. So we found an airplane with these amphibious floats and a Teflon bottom so we could land on the sea ice and take off. And my buddy was driving the airplane to Yellow Knife in the back of a U-haul trailer to get it , use a shoe-horn, shove it on to a DC-4 airplane and fly this ultra-light to Baffin Island where we were then going to fly to the sea ice. While he was driving there, [there was a fire] ... and all the wiring melted. So my buddy was on the phone trying to reach me to tell me the shoot was over. But he couldn't reach me, luckily ... so he thought well screw it I might as well do what I can. He spent the whole night re-wiring the entire airplane ... got it in the DC-4 and got it to the sea ice.

"We flew it out to our camp, I was so excited, here we are with this airplane and we get up in the air on the first night , we're about a 1000 feet up we're just starting to see narwhals and the engine quit. Now, we're over jagged ice. We're150 miles from any kind of safety, any kind of land. And as we descending, I'm in the front seat, my buddy's in the back , we've got the doors off, and you learn about yourself in these moments -- how you deal with stress and fear. We're about to crash and no one's ever going to find us out here. So I just keep taking pictures. I figure if I'm going to go down I might as well shoot.

"So I'm just shooting and my buddy Brian in the back says you might ... prime it [the engine] and turn the key [one more time]. So we barely got it going and we limped into camp the engine sputtering and banging and we landed at our camp. It took us a long time to get there blowing black smoke out the back. . We ended up blowing our crankshaft in the engine... So we ordered another engine, you know, called FedEx: Can we get this overnight-shipped to Baffin Island?

"One month later the engine shows up. Meantime, we're hauling around this broken down airplane and we're drifting out to sea all the time. We drift out to sea every day.... We're living 3 feet from this watery world and every time the tide goes out it takes a chunk of ice out to sea... So this goes on for a month. Finally the engine arrives. The ice is rotten everywhere. The season's over. It's July 15. We have to get off the ice, but I'm pushing my team, all the hunters have even left they've been ordered off the ice ... and I'm begging my team just one more day, just one more day and we get the engine installed. We get in the air. The engine started to quit again, but we keep it going and finally were flying over the whales and we see 10 whales and then 100 whales all of a sudden we're looking at 2-3,000 narwhals everywhere in front of us. And in this ice that's way off shore we see these narwhals coming up in these holes .

"We could see a polar bear sitting by one of the holes. [It was] the only place we could land. And I assured my buddy, who's from Sri Lanka, that polar bears are extremely friendly... convinced him to land. Walked out of the airplane, walked by the bear, hung out with the bear and got these shots and we had to get back to our camp. And as we were packing up our camp to get back to a safer area, I fell through the ice, grabbed a rope 'cause I was going under the ice and dislocated my shoulder. My assistant Jed, his dad's an orthopedic surgeon. It took him two hours, but he was finally able to reset my shoulder. Which was great. Because I was in that much pain and every time he tugged on my shoulder trying to reset it, I closed my eyes to the pain and all I saw was ivory tusks pointing to the sky and whales blowing and I knew we had the shots we needed. So we pretty much shot that entire story in one day [--out of 12 weeks on the ice for the project!]"

Disclosure: The Huffington Post is a sponsor of the current exhibition running at the Annenberg Space for Photography -- "Extreme Exposure."