In the maw of the beast

If Paul Nicklen isn't chasing death, he's not doing his job. The National Geographic photographer has been bitten by seals, charged by a grizzly bear, crashed two ultralight planes...

If Paul Nicklen isn’t chasing death, he’s not doing his job.

The National Geographic photographer has been bitten by seals, charged by a grizzly bear, crashed two ultralight planes, and has risked hypothermia while staggering around blindly in several blizzards all in the name of the perfect shot.

He’s most at home when he’s under 10 feet of ice, says Nicklen, who grew up in Iqaluit and Kimmirut, playing in blizzards and adopting baby seals and seagulls as pets.

The marine biologist-turned-photographer now calls the Yukon home and maintains a love for all things polar.

In November, Nicklen released his second book of photography, Polar Obsession, which documents 10 years of photography taken from both ends of the globe.

He reveals a combination of modesty and exhaustion at recounting his exploits, of which there are many. He’s swapped facetime with the elusive narwhal, walruses, migrating seals and curious polar bears.

He’s literally led a wild life.

But there is one story, in particular, that still gets Nicklen worked up.

It involves a dive off the coast of Antarctica, headless penguins and a 500-kilo carnivore with a reputation as one of the most vicious predators in the sea.

The carnivore sort of adopted Nicklen.

And the resulting story says a lot about nature, and even more about Nicklen’s nature.

It begins with the death of a single penguin off Anvers Island, a 61-kilometre mountainous island in the Palmer Archipelago.

A leopard seal, an alpha female, approached Nicklen’s sailboat and rammed a penguin so hard the bow kicked up.

It should be noted, Leopard seals love to eat penguins. During penguin season, leopard seals will eat up to 15 penguins a day, which amounts to about 75 kilos of meat.

The seals rip the birds’ heads off and then eats the entrails, using the carcass like a cup.

This is what Nicklen’s seal was doing when it whacked his boat.

After killing the bird, she began whipping it from side to side to tear its head off before downing the guts.

It’s a messy meal, and soon the ocean was awash with blood.

Looking over the side of the boat at the scarlet-tinged water, Nicklen’s guide told him it was time to go to work. He suggested Nicklen dive overboard with his camera and approach the feeding carnivore.

Nicklen did.

Numb with fear, he dove into the minus 1 Celsius water with his rig. The seal swam directly at Nicklen and took his entire head and camera into her mouth.

“It takes a leap of faith, when you get in the water with an animal like that, you’re completely vulnerable,” said Nicklen.

“I like those moments of feeling vulnerable. To live you almost have to be willing to die.”

The seal took his head in her mouth several times before swimming off and grabbing a live penguin and releasing it in front of Nicklen.

When he didn’t do anything with the penguin, she started to bring him tired penguins, then dead penguins all the while trying to feed them to him.

“I think she thought I was a useless predator in her ocean and that I was going to starve to death,” he said.

She was forcing dead penguins onto his head and right into his camera lens, thinking it was his mouth, “a photographer’s dream, of course.”

This went on for four days.

“It was a very deliberate effort at interspecies communication. Whether it was because she was nurturing me, trying to communicate, or bored and lonely and wanted to hang out,” he said.

Only once was Nicklen afraid. That was when he heard the leopard seal make a “deep, gutteral jackhammer noise.” But what Nicklen first thought was a threat display directed at him was actually a way to protect him from another leopard seal that had snuck behind him.

Over the course of those four days, he became “addicted” to her.

“I became so excited at night I couldn’t sleep and sometimes I’d sit there and tears would be rolling down my cheeks at suppertime because I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” he said.

“I couldn’t get enough.”

He considers it the most rewarding experience of his 20-year career in photography.

“When you spend a month trying to get a picture of a polar bear, then all of a sudden you have a top predator in Antarctica force-feeding you penguins all day, it doesn’t get much better than that.”

A Youtube video of Nicklen talking about the affectionate sea leopard has received almost 2 million hits.

He quickly dismisses the popularity of it, jokingly calling the flashy video “too Hollywoodized.”

Whether he wants to or not, Nicklen has caught the attention of people around the world.

Since releasing Polar Obsession he’s done hundreds of interviews and lectures – one day he packed in 17 US radio interviews in under two hours – and appeared on Jeopardy and nighttime talk shows.

He keeps in touch with Google creator Larry Page, and recently exchanged books with former US defence secretary Madeleine Albright. But to Yukoners, he’s still relatively unknown.

“In my own town nobody gives a rat’s ass about me. People don’t have a big head about these things and that’s why I love living up here.”

Nicklen has always been driven to capture the attention of as many people as he can – not for fame, he says – but to impress on them the urgency of climate change and how it will affect Arctic regions of the world.

“Up here people get it. It’s the people in the New York that don’t get it, living in their big cement jungle,” he said.

“We’re going to see lots of catastrophes before it gets better.”

As a marine biology student at the University of Victoria in the early ‘90s he realized he could get a bigger audience through photography than by compiling research data.

On the evening before his final exam in marine biology he had an epiphany.

“I was overwhelmed by the dryness of book learning,” he writes in the introduction to Polar Obsession.

Instead of studying he began feverishly making plans on a scrap piece of paper, detailing exactly how he would become a nature photographer.

Not surprisingly, he failed that exam but succeeded in laying out a career that would allow him to reach out to people on a visceral level.

“We’re an ADD society, photos are best to lure people in,” he said.

But getting to where he is now has involved putting himself through a serious of precarious situations.

Nicklen has spent so much time in cold, ocean water and gotten frostbite so many times that his body has now sustained permanent damage.

To his peers, he’s known as the “underwater street photographer,” willing to do almost anything for the perfect shot.

The one thing pushing him while on assignment for nine months of the year is that if he lets up, another photographer could easily swoop in and take his place.

He likens National Geographic to the NHL for photographers where on every assignment there are 200 people waiting for him to mess up.

“It’s so cutthroat, so many people want to make it to the top.”

It explains why the Carcross resident is the only Canadian photographer on staff for National Geographic.

Nicklen says that his passion is photographing the North, but admits he may have to take a break from diving in icy Arctic waters.

“The body can only take so much.”

Paul Nicklen’s book can be purchased at Mac’s Fireweed Books or online at

Contact Vivian Belik at