Story last updated at 8/26/2009 - 2:10 pm
This March, Flip Nicklin shot the first known photo of a baby blue whale, off the coast of Costa Rica. Nicklin, considered by many to be the top whale photographer in the world, said the secret to getting a shot like that is knowing who to listen to.
When a researcher asks Nicklin if he's ready to dive, Nicklin knows the researcher is "seeing things, feeling things you don't feel yet." And as a photographer, the thing to do is just get ready, get in the water and shoot, Nicklin said.
Nicklin works and lives in Maui a few months of the year and lives in Auke Bay the rest of the year - when he isn't off photographing whales. He's been photographing whales underwater for the past thirty years, including 20 features for National Geographic.
Nicklin is technically retired from his longstanding gig as a contract photographer for National Geographic - he describes his recent blue whale feature as his "third last" - and over the years he has been spending more and more time acting as a whale advocate.
"It's probably a pretty natural progression," Nicklin said. "I'm as happy putting cinematographers in the right place to get the photo (as I am) taking them myself."
Nicklin's goal these days in almost everything he does is to get people interested in and caring about whales, whether he is taking photos himself, helping others take photos, or telling his story. When invited to speak, he says he has a "just say yes policy."
And whether people are observing whales in the wild or through his photographs, he says its important to continue to constantly show new and interesting things.
"The more people are seeing things, the more connected (they are), the more we're moving forward," he said.
Junior scientist super fan
Nicklin said that as a boy he never imagined ending up doing what he's doing.
"I'm fairly surprised and very thankful," he said of how his life has turned out.
Still, it's hard to imagine a better training for his current career than the one Nicklin got from his father. His father, Chuck Nicklin, was a diver and underwater cinematographer, and trained his sons as divers from an early age. Chuck Nicklin got involved with whales in 1963, when he and some friends came across a Bryde's whale caught in fishing line while diving. After freeing the animal, he posed for a photo sitting on its back - and soon became known as a man who had ridden a whale.
Around this time, popular perceptions of whales were starting to change. Commercial whaling was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1966. In 1972, Chuck Nicklin was working on the first National Geographic wild whale story. And in 1979, Flip Nicklin got his first whale assignment shooting production stills for the IMAX film "Nomads of the Deep," for which his father was a cinematographer.
Since the mid-90s, Flip Nicklin has been working with humpback researcher Dr. Jim Darling in Maui. Although Nicklin has no academic training as a researcher, his diving and photography abilities have contributed to our understanding of whales.
For example, it was one of his photographs that first identified a singing humpback in Maui as male.
But he could never be a scientist himself, he said. "The focus and patience of guys who do scientific research - I couldn't do it."
He's perfectly happy being, as he describes himself, a "junior scientist super fan."
There's a gulf of difference between what people think we know about humpbacks and what is actually known, Nicklin said. At the same time, a great deal of research has not yet been processed for public consumption.
This is where one of Nicklin's latest projects comes in. His photos help illustrate the new book "Humpbacks: Unveiling the Mysteries" by Jim Darling. The book aims to present current research about humpbacks to both the new and seasoned whale-watcher.
Nicklin said the book will clear up some misconceptions about humpbacks - such as why they sing, for example - and also clarify what we really do and don't know about humpbacks.
He said the book will likely be updated often to reflect current research. There are plenty of studies that are awaiting publication, he said.
"The studies have been done, it's just getting them out," he said.
The problem is that with limited funding for whale researchers, when money is available, most researchers will spend it on learning more over sharing what they've already learned, at least at this point, Nicklin said.
And although funding is lean these days, and in many places nonexistent, modern technology is allowing research to be done in areas that were previously too difficult to reach.
"The early research in the 70s was where it's easiest to look at whales, where it's cheapest... not necessarily where you want to see them," Nicklin said.
He says that at research symposia there are likely to be thousands of people present. But the number of people who still go out in small boats and look whales in the eye is still a small group, he said.
"They were driven by something really special," Nicklin said. "They're bright, passionate folks who want to do stuff."
And they have figured ways to keep going out in little boats, looking whales in the eye.
"Those folks who have dug in, they're special folks," he said.
And their actions have led to a changing view of whales among people who can't see eye to eye with the behemoths.
For the love of whales
When asked about his favorite whale, Nicklin comes back to those he's spent the most time with.
"I think humpbacks are very special," he said. "I don't think they're the most important whale, but I know the most about them."
Since he was young, Nicklin has been following the changing popular views of humpbacks.
"You talk to people today, they think we've always cherished whales," he said.
Not many animals can make the transition from terrifying to friendly in the popular imagination the way humpbacks have. At the same time, Nicklin said, humpbacks are certainly not "cute."
"They don't fit. We know what cute is," he said. "(But) you gotta love 'em, lumps and all."
There's something significant about humans loving an animal that is decidedly not cute and cuddly. The long pectoral fin (usually around 15-feet long on a 40-foot whale) makes humpbacks more anthropomorphic, Nicklin said.
And recognizing that we love and care about whales regardless of what they look like is a good sign for learning more about and protecting whales in future, he said.
"What we do in the future has to be based on what they are," he said. "You don't want to lose the magic, but you want to base it on scientific observation."
Flip Nicklin will present a whale talk and slideshow Thursday, Aug. 27 from 7-8:30 p.m. at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall. He will also be avilable to sign the new book, "Humpback: Unveiling the Mysteries" by Jim Darling.