National Geographic Live – Paul Nicklen

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Paul Nicklen and leopard seal, Antarctica. (Image credit: Ehlme Goran)
National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Paul Nicklen and leopard seal, Antarctica. (Image credit: Ehlme Goran)

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen has traveled to some of the most remote regions of the globe to document the effects of climate change. He has plunged into icy water and floated on sea ice to photograph sea mammals that rarely encounter humans.

Nicklen worked as a biologist in Alaska before becoming a professional photographer. He says his love of the Arctic developed as a kid, growing up in a tiny Arctic village on Baffin Island in Canada.

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Photographer Paul Nicklen will talk about his work and show slides tonight at Atwood Concert Hall in Anchorage. The talk is presented by the Anchorage Museum.

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Emperor Penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)
National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Emperor Penguins, Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)
National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Walrus, Svalbard, Norway. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)
National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen takes audiences to the vast polar regions of our planet. Walrus, Svalbard, Norway. (Image credit: Paul Nicklen)

TOWNSEND: How did you first get started as a polar regions photographer?

NICKLEN: Funny you would even start there — that’s the start of my talk. How do you become who you are? For me, it was when my family moved from southern Canada to Baffin Island, where we lived in a tiny Inuit community of 190 people.

You know back in the 70s we never had radio. We didn’t have television. We didn’t even have a telephone in this community. We got our groceries once a year by ship, so a lot of these Alaskan communities can relate.

You become so immersed in that environment, you become so immersed in that culture and for myself all my entertainment, all my pleasure, came from being outside.

The Inuit were my teachers. They taught me survival skills, they taught me how to hunt, they taught me how to survive on the land. I never really realized how deeply engrained that was into my, sort of spirit, until I left and went to university and every second I missed the north.

I came back as a biologist and became frustrated with the whole scientific process. Working for the Canadian government is extremely slow and can be very ineffective. We were collecting great data but we weren’t doing anything with it. I thought if I could just bridge the gap between this good scientific work and the public — then now, I have a chance to reach 100 million people with a story in National Geographic magazine for example.”

TOWNSEND: Paul, tell me about some of your most memorable photography expeditions in the arctic. What stands out?

NICKLEN: I have had so many incredible journeys. When I look at my images, people say what’s your favorite photo? Well I don’t really ever have a favorite photo; I have favorite moments that will stay with me forever. On my death bed it’s going to be not surrounded by covers of National Geographic, but it’s going to be memories and hopefully friends and family.

You know for myself, swimming with narwhals to find out they really are these unicorns of the sea and very few people have seen them. It took me ten years to get in a position that I could actually photograph them. It involved me buying an ultra light float airplane that I could fly off the sea ice. We flew 100 miles of shore, landed on a floating pan of ice; we were surrounded by 1,000 narwhales. They were scenes that nobody else could ever dream of or imagine; scenes that very few people besides the Inuit would ever get the chance to see — to reach out and be able to touch their tusks as they are blowing for air and photograph.

Also spending time with grizzly bears in Denali National Park alone, hiking with them. I was sitting in Denali one day and I was young, I was 19 years old, and right in front of me were a bunch of Dall sheep and I heard a noise behind me and it was a big grizzly bear walking behind me and I looked over to the left there and there was a wolverine running up the hill. I had to pinch myself that all of these things were going on at the same time.

TOWNSEND: You have also photographed in Antarctica. Tell us about your encounter with a big leopard seal there.

NICKLEN: I’m always trying to dispel myths with my photography. It drives me crazy when I go into a bookstore in Alaska and it’s like ‘death by bear’ and ‘Alaska tales of death’ and every picture’s got a bear on the cover that’s snarling. Bears don’t even growl like that, you know? Maybe it’s yawning or maybe a trainer is making it yawn in the picture. You know that stuff just really irks me — these animals need a fair shake, these animals are just trying to survive.

So, to have leopard seals be the villain in “8 below 0” and “Happy Feet” as this vicious monster? I don’t think any animal is vicious and we have to change how we perceive and how we connect with these species and ecosystems.

If I want people to care about ice, I can’t afford to have people thinking “Oh Antarctica? Ice? That’s where those terrible monsters live!” So I pitched a story to National Geographic to go down to Antarctica and get in the water with as many leopard seals as I could over a six week period, just to see if they were vicious or misunderstood.

I was nervous jumping in the water this first day with this 1,000 pound female leopard seal that had just killed a penguin and there was blood and guts everywhere. She was ramming the dead penguin under the hull of our little Zodiac, and we were trying not to fall in the water — and that’s when I had to get in.

So I put on my snorkel in my mouth, and my mask, and my dry suit, and weight belt and jumped in the water. And right away this 1,000 pound seal, that’s a head bigger than Grizzly bear, came shooting over to me. She kept doing these threat display lunges at me but it never really looked aggressive. If you look at a leopard seal they have no scars on their body, so I think they are always communicating with these displays.

She calmed downed after five minutes and then she went off and got a penguin and tried to feed me the penguin; a live one. And then she realized I couldn’t catch that and so she brought me tired penguins, nearly dead penguins, and she brought me dead penguins. At one point I had five dead penguins floating around my head. She started to flip penguins onto my head. She defended me from other leopard seals when they came by. And she would come and sleep by my sailboat at night and then in the morning when I’d go back out on the Zodiaq she’d be there waiting for us like a big excited puppy dog.

We’d drive over to wherever we wanted to photograph her next to ice bergs. She’d go off and get a penguin and we’d do this song and dance and this went on for four days before she finally realized that I wasn’t going to eat a penguin. I went from being terrified to laughing so hard and crying in my mask; it was tears of joy and water flooding in my mask. I was constantly clearing my mask trying to just see this amazing thing going on in front of me. It is something that I definitely will never forget.”

TOWNSEND: You were adopted by a leopard seal?

NICKLEN: I think you can be anthropomorphic or anthropocentric on these types of encounters. But I really think that in her eyes she was just trying to figure out what I was doing there. She probably has never seen a human being before. You are either breeding or you are feeding, so I think she thought if she could just get me to accept a penguin, she would understand why I was there. And then I think it became this urgent need to make sure I wasn’t going to starve. All of a sudden I think she went from figuring out what I was, to trying to help me. Again you don’t want to be anthropomorphic about this stuff but I don’t know how else to think about it.

TOWNSEND: Give us some context about the change in the Arctic that you’ve seen in the time that you’ve been a professional photographer.

NICKLEN: That’s a great question. 20 years ago, you think of a place like Svalbard, Norway that’s only 700 miles from the North Pole. It’s historically been completely surrounded by ice all summer long. You have these shelves of ice, massive glaciers and you’ve got the sea ice and pack ice and it’s all swirling around.

On that ice supports a huge population of polar bears for example; 3000 bears live on these ice floes and they are able to feed on seals all summer long. Just think, now 10 years forward to 2006/2007 we were trying to photograph a story there, we had to keep putting the story on hold for three years because there was no ice to be found anywhere and the bears were stranded on land. Not only was there not ice in the summertime, there wasn’t ice there in the winter. These bears are finding little strips of ice. You think of seals where they give birth to their pups on the ice; it’s affecting them. It’s affecting copepods and amphipods and polar cod. It’s affecting the whole food chain; it’s not just bears that are being affected.

Just this summer I decided to go back. We started a non-profit called “Sea Legacy” which is trying to bring attention to these global issues like climate change and global fisheries, and so this donor paid for this trip for us to go there and photograph. The entire Nordaustlandet ice cap was melting; usually you see a trickle of waterfall here and there. We saw hundreds of waterfalls just gushing water off this ice cap. And that’s fine, how do you quantify that?

But, in places traditionally where there is ice, the last little pockets of ice that remain there all summer long were complete gone. We started walking across the land and were finding dead bears that had starved to death. We were finding bears that were two, three years old that had died.

So it was an amazing opportunity as a storyteller to be able to actually document these dead bears and just contrast that in conjunction with the melting ice and not having any ice anywhere around Svalbard for the bears.

TOWNSEND: What do you really hope to accomplish with the pictures that you take?

NICKLEN: Everybody has a role to play. The scientists; without science my pictures don’t mean a lot. They are more of my own emotional interpretation. But, I think since the beginning of time, since the time of drawing painting on cave walls, we are visual storytellers. You think of the Inuit culture, it’s very visual, very creative, very artistic.

I think we’ve been beating people over the head with facts of climate change in the newspapers, you read about it every day. I think we’ve become inundated with it; I think we’ve become numb to it. So I’m just using my photographs as constant reminders. And we are seeing a shift in people’s perceptions about the change. Not only am I trying to inspire change, I am also trying to drive change with decision makers and influential people.

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Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at or call 907-350-2058.

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