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Photographer deep dives into seas, environmentalism

Paul Nicklen
 

WESTVILLE — Photographer Paul Nicklen, whose photos from the polar regions are at the forefront of the debate on climate change, gave his audience at Purdue University Northwest’s Sinai Forum the world premiere of a video on blue whales he had just finished editing two days before.

“We’ve been filming blue whales in Mexico for the last two weeks,” he said. The film is set to music by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The blue whales show their power and grace in the video.

“Think about some of the facts about blue whales,” Nicklen said. At 120 feet long, they’re the largest animal in Earth’s history, bigger than any dinosaur. The tongue of a blue whale weighs over 8,000 pounds, more than a bull elephant.

Nicklen, a marine biologist, uses his images of wildlife to share about nature. His photos from the polar regions have done much to advance the discussion of climate change.

Twenty years ago, Nicklen couldn’t even use the words “climate change” on stage, he said. Now people are talking about it often and seeing it happen before their eyes.

“With wildlife, I try not to harass animals. I try to be a fly on the wall,” he said. But he broke that rule to get a close-up shot of a walrus, trying to show an animal, warts and all, that depends on sea ice. “I want people to look at an image like this and fall in love with it,” he said, and care about what’s happening to them as sea ice disappears.

Nicklen shared a photo of the entire Greenland icecap melting for the first time. “The polar regions are changing twice as fast as any region on Earth,” he said.

Another image showed a polar bear with a large scar, which he earned while “he’s out there fighting for the right to breathe.”

Polar bears have become a symbol of climate change, with predictions that they will become extinct in 80 to 100 years because sea ice is disappearing.

Paul Nicklen presents “Into the Icy Realm”
This is a photo of a polar bear by photographer Paul Nicklen.

“When bears are on land, they’re not eating. When they out on the sea ice, they’re thriving,” he said.

The loss of habitat increases the chances of polar bears interacting with humans. One of his photos illustrated his point.

“I looked up the window and saw a bear six inches from my face, staring at me through the window,” he said. “I did what you would do. I opened the window. And then I realized she might be able to fit through the window.”

Nicklen decided to go outside quickly to grab his camera’s flash unit. The bear outside the door convinced him to try a different kind of lighting instead.

He lit an oil lamp on the wall and used his laptop’s screen to light the bear’s face, just to fill in the shadows. “This picture ran in National Geographic. It’s used everywhere,” he said.

Nicklen speaks to people who have lived in polar regions all their lives. They speak about favorite areas to hunt, but the area is different now. Instead of being covered with ice, uncharted rocks and land are now visible.

Nicklen interacts often with animals, too.

Paul Nicklen presents “Into the Icy Realm”
Photographer Paul Nicklen answers questions following his presentation.

In Norway, he was in the water with orcas, which are 12,000 pounds and 25 feet long. “I often use the most charismatic species for that habitat” when telling a story, he said.

While he was in the water with the orcas, a male was trying to play hide and seek with him. “I could feel him clicking me with his echolocation,” Nicklen said. The whale swam up the length of Nicklen, just two feet away. Nicklen pulled his camera closer to him so the whale wouldn’t bump into it.

“He started to squeal, and you could see his body shaking, he was so proud of himself,” Nicklen said. But Nicklen knew the orca was out there feeding on animals, so he decided it was time to get out of there.

Another time, it was a bear, which Nicklen named Morris.

It was 20 below zero, and Nicklen had to use an outhouse with no door. The lonely bear approached. “I’m sitting in this outhouse, with my pants around my ankles, and Morris sitting beside me.”

Later, Nicklen went to the river and sat there, drinking his Scotch, when Morris brought his salmon from the river to eat a meal with his photographer friend.

An assignment 15 years ago, photographing leopard seals, also was memorable. “They really are this aggressively curious animal,” Nicklen said. “Animals, by nature, are generally fun” and curious.

“I just want to give these animals a fair shake,” he decided. “Let’s see if they really are vicious or if they’re misunderstood.”

Paul Nicklen presents “Into the Icy Realm”
Photo of a seal by photographed by Paul Nicklen.

A female leopard seal, longer than the 12-foot inflatable boat, was banging a two-foot penguin against the bottom of the boat before eating it. Nicklen was nervous but got in the water.

The seal brought a penguin into her mouth, released it and the penguin swam away. She did it over and over.

“I don’t want to anthropomorphize animals, but it sure seems like she’s trying to feed me a penguin,” he said.

“She realized I was not able to catch or do anything with a live penguin, so she started bringing me dead penguins,” he said. Twelve of them. “She was in just absolute disbelief that I was this predator and I didn’t know what to do with this penguin.”

“This went on for four days where she tried to force-feed me penguins,” he said. Nicklen could tell she was getting frustrated.

Nicklen was asked how he got hired by National Geographic. He served as a guide for another photographer, who took Nicklen under his wing.

“They all saw this skill with me that no one else in the world has,” he said. “I’m really good with being frozen and miserable.”

“A typical dive looks like this,” he said. “Have you ever had a Slurpee, and you drink it too fast and you get that burning sensation on your head?” It’s like that, except that burning sensation is over his entire head.

Paul Nicklen presents “Into the Icy Realm”
Photographer Paul Nicklen is shown in a photo from his adventures.

Soon you have no feeling, and after 45 minutes your body goes into really deep shivering. Not only are you going through all this physiological trauma, but you still have to capture outstanding photographs for your assignment. When the shivering stops, you have just five minutes to get out of the water before you suffer major harm.

It’s worth it, though, to raise awareness of climate change.

“We can start beating the drum on a daily basis” with Instagram, he said. Nicklen’s account has 7.2 million followers.

SeaLegacy, which he co-founded, is an environmental conservation organization that uses images and storytelling to promote solutions to problems in the ocean. “It’s growing quickly. We have 50 employees. We have people filming and shooting all over the world.”

Nicklen urged people frustrated about issues like climate change to get involved. “The only real way forward is if you’re inactive, get active,” he said. “Get involved in something. As you get active and as you start to see results, you feel hope.”

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