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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 killer whale, or orca, in the Gulf of Alaska. Recognizable by their distinctive black-and-white coloring, killer whales have never been extensively hunted by humans. With teeth that can grow as long as four inches, they do a fare share of hunting, with seals, sea lions and even other whales serving as prey. While they most often frequent cold, coastal waters, orcas can be found from the polar regions to the Equator.
Nicklin, who dreamed of becoming a herpetologist as a kid, knew he didn't have the patience to study whales as an academic, but diving and photography are part of his DNA. His father, Chuck Nicklin, a diver and underwater cinematographer, became a sensation in 1963 when a picture of him riding a whale circulated on wire services nationwide.

Over the next three decades, the younger Nicklin would go to western Canada for killer whales, Sri Lanka for sperm whales, the High Arctic for narwhals, Patagonia for right whales, the Great Barrier Reef for minkes and Maui for humpbacks. As Nicklin made his way around the world, his images were becoming an integral part of studies that changed how both the scientific community and the general public viewed and understood whales. These were real animals exhibiting real behavior, with Nicklin there to catch it all, as he was spending eight months of the year out in the field.

Before Nicklin's assignment in Sri Lanka, good pictures of sperm whales were hard to come by, if at all. Sperm whales swim in deep water and have big white teeth. No one knew if they were at all approachable. But at Geographic, the prevailing attitude was that if anyone could do it, Nicklin could, and he did. Over those six months, he didn't get a lot of pictures. He came back with just four rolls of film underwater, but it was enough for the story. He attributes much of his success to the researchers and scientists he got to work with on his assignments.

"Nobody got to do what I got do. I got to work with anybody I wanted to, and the jobs would often be six months, sometimes more. So I would go from project to project being that extra guy. Mostly, it was just me on a small research boat or in a small research camp for months at a time being the reporter, being the journalist, but also being a part of things because I was the guy who got in the water, and they wanted to see what was underwater. I got to take one graduate course after another. For someone who didn't have a college education, I got to be where every student in the world would like to be as my job."

Photographically, Nicklin picked pretty tough subject matter. The biggest challenge was to get as close as possible without disturbing the whale's behavior. While he would go on assignment for weeks or months, he made sure to work with people who had been in the field for months or years so he could get those precious few photographic moments. Even with the right people, there are so many other factors that make this job tough.

Says Nicklin, "Even here today [in Maui], we've been back doing these studies since '96, and I know if I try and go out for 100 days, I'll get four days that are the days when all of the cool stuff happens, photographically."

The benefits of digital technology have made things easier, too. Back in 1979, Nicklin shot Frank using Kodachrome with a 1½-pound Nikonos that wasn't very easy to adjust underwater. He would bracket to make multiple exposures, go up for air, change the ƒ-stop and head back down. He would make three dives for each animal. There was no such thing as autofocus or auto-exposure. Imagine trying to keep up with sperm whales in the Azores while they're doing all sorts of cool things and having just 36 frames before it's time to head back up for more film or to change cameras.


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