- Kate MacDonald
Growing up near the Arctic on Baffin Island, Paul Nicklen made friends with the local animals—polar bears, arctic wolves, seals and narwhals. Now he’s become a celebrated National Geographic photographer, and says he feels more at ease around animals than people, as Kate MacDonaldwrites.
At the age of four, Paul Nicklen moved with his family from the south of Canada to Baffin Island in the north—a remote landmass near Greenland supporting polar bears and arctic wolves.
His education was built around his Inuit friends, the snow and arctic animals. It was here that he developed a love of nature that would steer his life and career—first as a biologist in the Canadian Northwest Territories and then as a photojournalist, working with National Geographic magazine.
He has produced so far 16 stories for the magazine, primarily concentrating on the polar regions and how the polar animals depend so much on their ecosystem for survival—particularly the rapidly diminishing sea ice.
‘I’m using visual story-telling to get people to realise that because of the lives we’re leading we’re ultimately seeing the disappearance of very pristine beautiful habitat,’ Nicklen says.
‘With the loss of ice we will see the loss of ecosystems in both polar regions.’
One of Nicklen’s assignments was to spend time in the Antarctic with leopard seals. Leopard seals have the reputation of being vicious, and Nicklen wanted to find out if this was true.
The first encounter he had with a leopard seal was a large 12-foot adult which was killing a penguin underneath the zodiac he was on with his guide.
Nicklen spent four days with this leopard seal. At first she tried to engulf his head and his camera in her mouth, but soon she relaxed and started trying to feed him penguins: first by offering him live ones, and then when she realised he was too inept to accept a live penguin, by bringing him dead ones.
He’s also spent time in the water with polar bears (the photo above of a bear and its reflection was taken on one of his dives). He says he’s seen 3,000 polar bears in the wild and has never had a bad experience. Every time he’s around a bear it teaches him something new, something amazing. But he also says that bears are more and more being found dead on land, and healthy bears are also being discovered with hyperthermia in the Balfour Sea where the ice has melted and the bears have had to swim too far out to get to land.
At home on Baffin Island Nicklen has also photographed narwhals, extraordinary whales that have long straight tusks. Often he has to spend hours in freezing water before the male narwhals, swimming in formation, finally appear, trailing streams of bubbles.
These interactions with animals have changed the way he views humans, he says. He’s become quite cynical—it’s with animals and nature that he feels most at home. The animals are consistent in their behaviour compared to people.
‘The only place I’ve been attacked by anything in the last ten years was in a New York metro station underground, and it was a terrifying moment for me,’ he says.