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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 humpback whale in the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Maui. Nicklin first worked with humpbacks in Lahaina in 1979. With his father, Chuck, he was part of an IMAX movie crew filming Nomads of the Deep. He returned in 1980 to help Jim Darling, who would become his longtime research partner, determine the sex of singing humpbacks. His first National Geographic story on humpbacks in Maui appeared in 1982. (This photo was obtained in Maui under NMFS Permit #987.)
"But now you've got 400, 800 images in there, you can shoot all day, and it's just a whole different thing," Nicklin says. "That said, I remember talking to Gil Grosvenor [former Geographic editor] who talked about shooting in Sri Lanka in the late '40s and early '50s when 36 frames was a suitcase full of glass plates, so technology has changed quite a bit. But I love digital. I did my first job with it on killer whales for two weeks in 2003 using a Nikon D100. I came back and took all of my film cameras to this local shop in Juneau, where I live, and said sell them for whatever you can get."

Out of his three decades of experience, Nicklin says there are probably 10 moments that really stand out. The day he met Frank. Jumping into a narwhal fight where a young male swam up to him with his tusk angled toward Nicklin and within 18 inches of his chest. The last day of an assignment on sperm whales when he was able to get a picture of a baby. All of these stories and more are included in his new book, Among Giants: A Life with Whales, which showcases his photographs, as well as tells the stories behind them. Throughout the book are highlights of new advances being made in understanding whale behavior and the importance of conservation.

While he has his father to thank for his sea legs, Nicklin's life may not have unfolded this way if not for his mother's steadfast encouragement. When he was into snakes and lizards as a boy, she let him keep them in cages—16 to be exact—in their garage, even though she was deathly afraid of the creatures. When he started getting into free diving, she showed her support even though her father, a construction diver, died in a diving accident.

These days, diving and taking pictures are "still a big kick" for Nicklin, but he also has become part of the research effort. He went back to Hawaii in the mid-1990s, and in 2001, he and Darling, along with their colleague Meagan Jones, started the nonprofit Whale Trust. The goal is to promote and conduct research on whales and the marine environment, and to develop educational programs based on that research. In the winter, more than 10,000 humpbacks pass through the warm, clear water around Hawaii, making it an ideal place for research.

"You can't have whales or polar bears or any of this stuff without a working system around them," explains Nicklin. "You can't just have whales or just have polar bears. You've got to have clean water, you've got to have herring and krill, you've got to have all those things together, and so what we're fighting for is the whole system. We're just getting your attention with these iconic animals."

See more of Charles "Flip" Nicklin's work at www.mindenpictures.com. and flipnicklin.com. His book Among Giants is available at major bookstores everywhere, online and as an iPad app.


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