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.

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.'"

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.

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 and His book Among Giants is available at major bookstores everywhere, online and as an iPad app.

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