Photography: Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin’s Secrets of Whales

On Monday, June 27, 2011, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin, considered to be among the best underwater photographers, will be speaking at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute from 7:00 to 8:00pm. He will also lead a series of photography workshops and will present his new memoir/coffee table book, Among Giants—A Life with Whales (2011). [For more on the book, see previous post New Book: Flip Nicklin’s “Among Giants—A Life with Whales”.] See an interview with Sarah Lagan (Bermuda Sun) below.

He has 30 years of experience of photographing whales, more than 5,000 dives under his belt and can free dive to great depths even at the age of 62. But perhaps underwater photographer Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin coolest accolade is being known as the National Geographic’s ‘Whale Guy’. He has taken countless iconic photos of whales including the first ever underwater pictures of narwhals and recently a baby blue whale. He talked to the Bermuda Sun’s Sarah Lagan.

What sets your new book apart from your previous books?  This is the first one that is a personal book—it talks about how the pictures happened, it includes a family history, National Geographic history, whale research history all thrown together. It starts with the work my father (whale documentary maker Chuck Nicklin) did in the 60s and going through to last year. There are probably 24 different National Geographic stories that either he or I did and so it’s a family story.

Your work hasn’t all been about producing beautiful pictures, it has contributed to many scientific breakthroughs. Does your work continue to do that? My first scientific thing was discovering that only the male humpbacks sing. When we went back in ‘96 we went back to find out who comes when the male humpback whales are singing and we found it was other males. Singing has to do with mating—but it appears to be males coordinating their groupings to go to females, not to call females to them. In 1996, I started supporting a research project (the Whale Trust) now a non-profit, in Hawaii with Dr Jim Darling. Megan Jones—our first PHD this year is working out female roles.

Is there is still much to discover in the world of whales? Blue whales were my last big story for National Geographic in 2009 and there is a lot to be learned about them. We knew some of them ended up way off shore in a place called the Costa Rican dome off the coast of Central America. We went there to see if we could find baby blue whales being born there and we did. I got the first picture of a baby blue underwater. There are a number of whales nobody has ever seen alive.

What have been your career highlights? Getting the first underwater pictures of narwhals in the High Arctic. My dive with “Frank”—the first singing humpback whale I went down with and getting the picture of the baby blue whale in Costa Rica in 2009.

Why did you choose to photograph whales? I wanted to be in the water and I was a good free diver. I didn’t really think about it but I liked biology—I liked animals. In 1979 I went to work on an Imax film my father was working on and my dad had become a big documentary movie photographer for whales and they hired me to come along and shoot the production stills. While I was there I met Jim Darling (who he has worked with ever since). Bates Littlehales and my father became friends when I was a teenager — he was very cool, he’d been everywhere, done everything. Bates was the guy who made me dream of being a Geographic photographer. What Bates did and what I did was to be the one guy on the boat, with the researchers, who covered the story and I liked that a lot. I could be with people who knew a lot about whales but I could make it through that interface and get in the water with the whales and show them more of the story.

Have you ever swum with our whales here in Bermuda? I’ve been to Bermuda many times before but have not swum with them there. I have come there every few years to do workshops and presentations. Bill Scott (of the Bermuda Zoological Society) got me to come in 1990 when I brought out my book With the Whales.

Will there be a conservation message in your talk? There will be a strong conservation message. Some of the TV shows give the dramatic poetic license version, which is all great but I guess my message will be—wherever you start, there is so much good information out there and I think you will find that there are really interesting and complex answers. What I come away from, after doing this with the best people in the world, is the people who know the most, are sure of the least. Only the really simple answer that makes you demonise the bad guys—there is probably more to it than that.

For original article, see

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