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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Whale Guy

Flip Nicklin has spent 30 years looking whales in the eye. His acclaimed photographs have practically defined these massive and graceful creatures to the general public and helped break new ground in marine mammalogy.

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A bottlenose dolphin in Hawaii. Flip Nicklin released a book with his wife, Linda, in 2007 called Face to Face with Dolphins, which explored dolphin behavior and the differences among the 32 types.

On March 10, 1979, Flip Nicklin met Frank, who was "singing" in the waters off of Maui at the time. The two met one another about 50 feet underwater, and Nicklin was tasked with taking Frank's picture, which there weren't many of since photographs of humpback whales in the wild had only started appearing four years earlier. The idea was to get pictures that would identify the animal's gender. So he had to position himself in a way where he could get close, but not interfere with or disrupt any behavior. Fortunately, Nicklin was just the guy for the job. He could free-dive without air down to about 100 feet and stay for a minute—a handy skill for photographing whales because if he had dove in with an air tank, the bubbles from the tank could have changed the whole interaction. Frank, who they didn't know was a male at the time, was well within Nicklin's range. Plus, the animal was just hanging in the water, motionless and approachable.

A white sperm whale calf in Portugal. Covering sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka was Nicklin's third big story for National Geographic in the early 1980s. He came home with four rolls of film underwater. These were among the first photos ever to appear of sperm whales.
Those pictures led to a few important discoveries. First, whale research could involve more than making and listening to recordings of the sounds the whales make underwater. The creatures could be seen underwater. Second, only male humpbacks sing. This was a big leap in understanding whale behavior. And third, while taking pictures to identify which gender was doing the singing, Nicklin was getting humpback shots that were unprecedented at the time. The work led to a National Geographic story, and that led to a 30-year career as the magazine's "whale guy."

Whales move people emotionally. For those fortunate enough to have seen one close up, whether diving underwater or hanging out on a boat, their mass and magnificence create a fascination for people the world over—now. Before the late '60s when Nicklin was starting out, public opinion concluded these creatures were big and dangerous, and those who hung around them were brave. As more books and articles were published about their behavior, most notably those in Geographic, the shift from terrifying predators to wise, mythic creatures began.

"All of a sudden whales were gentle giants drifting through the blue abyss, filtering seawater with lives better than our own, which was nice, but that wasn't quite true either," Nicklin recalls.

What really moved Nicklin, both photographically and personally, were the real experiences he was having in the water. He met Jim Darling, who would become his longtime collaborator, on the 1979 trip studying humpbacks. Darling was the coordinator and main research contact, and he was ordering Nicklin to take pictures of their bloody head knobs because the males were beating each other as they chased after females. In the midst of the "Save the Whales" movement and all of the somewhat sugary language now being used to describe these animals, this wasn't the kind of behavior Nicklin expected to see.

"Jim said to me, 'If you don't appreciate whales for what they really are, then you don't appreciate whales. If we're going to make good decisions—good educational decisions and good conservation decisions—it has to be based on what's really happening rather than on gut.'"


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