JUNEAU - While taking some of the first underwater photographs of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka in the early 80s, Flip Nicklin noticed a human shape beyond the whales. As he got closer, he realized it was his own father.
Flip Nicklin reflects on 'A Life with Whales' 042711 NEWS 5 Capital City Weekly JUNEAU - While taking some of the first underwater photographs of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka in the early 80s, Flip Nicklin noticed a human shape beyond the whales. As he got closer, he realized it was his own father.

Right, one of Nicklin's images from his book: Three generations of whale researchers - Jim Darling, left, Gustavo Alvarez Colombo, center, and Roger Payne - watch a southern right whale hold its tail into the wind in Patagonia in 1986. All humpback photos taken under NMFS permit #753.

Flip Nicklin (above, photo by Linda Nicklin) recently published "Among Giants: A Life with Whales," the cover image of which is shown below.

All Photos By Flip Nicklin

Shown are photos from Flip Nicklin's book, "Among Giants: A Life with Whales." A very young (and rare) white sperm whale with its mother, photographed in the Azores in 1995.

All Photos By Flip Nicklin

A blue whale, the largest animal on earth, photographed in Baja California in 1988.

All Photos By Flip Nicklin

A bowhead pokes its head up under bowhead researcher Kerry Finley's kayak in Isabella Bay, Canada in 1994. Writes Nicklin: "The same thing happened to me soon after. With the water below freezing, this was not that much fun."

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Story last updated at 4/27/2011 - 1:40 pm

Flip Nicklin reflects on 'A Life with Whales'

JUNEAU - While taking some of the first underwater photographs of sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka in the early 80s, Flip Nicklin noticed a human shape beyond the whales. As he got closer, he realized it was his own father.

And why not? If you were to run into anybody underwater in the middle of the Indian Ocean at the time, it would probably be one of the Nicklins. Since 1972, National Geographic has published about 26 whale stories with underwater photographs. Flip or his father has been the photographer for 20 of them.

The North American Nature Photography Association recently named Nicklin their 2012 "Nature Photographer of the Year," writing that Flip "is best known for capturing the world's best images of whales and other underwater life."

Many of these images, and the stories and science behind them, are collected in Nicklin's new book, "Among Giants: A Life with Whales," published by University of Chicago Press.

Nicklin wanted to publish the book while his father was still around to see it. After all, his life with whales began at his father's dive shop in San Diego, where he worked starting when he was 11, mingling with divers, scientists and photographers. The first chapter in "Among Giants" begins, "The day my father, Chuck, rode a whale changed everything," and goes on to tell the story of a widely circulated photo of Chuck Nicklin on the back of a Bryde's Whale, which would catapult him to becoming one of the best known whale photographers and cinematographers, at a time when the public perception of whales was shifting from sea monster to gentle giant.

Neither Nicklin seems to be hanging up the wetsuits and cameras anytime soon. Last week, Chuck Nicklin was setting off to Micronesia for his 84th birthday and Flip Nicklin, now 62, was pitching new whale stories to National Geographic.

Still, Nicklin sees his book as marking a turning point in his life. In his decades of photographing whales everywhere from Argentina to Barrow, Nicklin typically spent eight months of the year in the field. Then, in 2001, he cofounded Whale Trust, a marine research and education organization based in Maui, and has been devoting more and more time to outreach and education on behalf of the whales he's come to know so well. In 2003, he moved to Juneau with his wife, naturalist Linda Nicklin, and enjoyed the relative anonymity at first. He jokes about Alaska Magazine blowing his cover with a feature story in which he was called "Alaska's whale ambassador to the world."

Now Nicklin is delighted to be involved in Juneau's community, advocating for the project to build a bronze whale statute in Marine Park, and working with local whale researchers, whale watching operators and photographers.

His work has been guided by a few simple rules, which he also passes on to novice photographers. Number one: a photo must either show something new or show something familiar in a new way. Number two: Pictures that look like pictures you've seen before don't count. Number three: Your photo should tell a story - you should be able to talk for hours about the story behind a photo.

Photography has played a key role in whale research. Many Southeast Alaskans are familiar with the humpback whale tail photos that have been used to determine population size, movements and social behaviors. Nicklin, working with humpback whale researcher Dr. James Darling in Hawaii in 1979, took underwater photos of singing humpbacks that led to the discovery that it was the males who sing in the breeding grounds.

Nicklin defers to the researchers he's worked alongside, saying his own expertise is a mile wide and an inch deep, but over his decades of shooting just about every species of whale alongside researchers around the world, Nicklin has acquired a unique familiarity with the whole scope of whale research.

As he talks about the research he finds most exciting, he'll casually skip from Pacific gray whales ("one satellite tag on one whale in Russia has you questioning the whole thing!") to the number of bowheads in the Arctic ("all guesses have gone up tenfold") to humpbacks in Oman (unlike most humpback populations, they don't migrate).

It's a dramatic time in whale research right now, Nicklin says, as many of the pioneer researchers in the field are passing their batons down to the next generation, and there's still so much we don't know about whales.

"The people who know the most in the business are sure of the least," he says - and vice versa. "Everything you learn, it opens up these other questions."

As our understanding of whales and their ecosystems change, Nicklin hopes our conversations about them will change as well, and that we will take a more nuanced approach to protecting the whales.

Much of the "save the whales" rhetoric was, and still is, based on the idea of scarcity. Some populations of whales, of course, are severely threatened - such as the western Pacific gray whale population, which is estimated at just 130 animals - but other populations have not only rebounded from endangered status but are flourishing, including the humpback whale populations that summer in Southeast Alaska.

This abundance creates new problems - some humpbacks in Southeast Alaska, for example, stake out hatcheries around the time of fish releases - and raises new questions.

Nicklin hopes discussion will shift from a focus on how many whales there are to why they are worth protecting. Some whale hunting, such as in Japan, is "probably not an issue" in terms of population management, so those that object to whale hunting might do well to find another argument.

"It's not just that we don't kill them all, it's that we cherish them," he says.

Nicklin also thinks whales are effective icons that can be used to promote the health of the entire marine ecosystem.

"You don't get whales without a healthy sea," he says. "(But) systems are harder to sell than big, iconic animals."

Flip Nicklin will be presenting his book "Among Giants: A Life with Whales" in Juneau on Thursday, May 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Nugget Mall Hearthside Books. He will also have a book signing on Friday, May 6 from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the downtown Hearthside Books (during the First Friday gallery walk). On June 3 he will be one of guests on Hearthside's "Wildlife Authors at Sea" cruise.

For more information on the events, visit For more about Flip Nicklin and his work, visit