Photographer Paul Nicklen puts a face to endangered wildlife

- Darcie Scollard

Paul Nicklen’s first words to a packed audience at UVic’s Farquhar auditorium on Feb. 6 were “I am incredibly honored to be here, and in fact I’m in utter disbelief, given my track record here at this university 23 years ago.” Nicklen was invited to speak for UVic’s Alumni week, which honors everything UVic’s grads do for their communities, and as a 1990 grad and Canada’s only photographer for National Geographic, he certainly fits the bill.

Nicklen had a unique childhood growing up with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and came to UVic to study biology. He said, “I came to UVic from the North and right away, I got into scuba diving and as long and I was maintaining Cs and Ds, I was diving. I did 450 dives while going to UVic.”

Despite his self-admitted poor attendance, Nicklen’s career is impressive and he shared with a rapt audience a collection of photographs ranging from spirit bears, polar bears, and a stunning two-minute time-lapse of the Northern lights.

Nicklen said, “We’re inundated. We know that sea ice is disappearing. We hear about it all the time, but what I’m trying to do with my photography, and especially photography for National Geographic—a magazine where I can reach 40 million people—is to put faces to the names, and to what is going to be lost when this ice disappears.”

As a majestic image of a narwhal flashed behind him, Nicklen said, “On many levels, this is the hardest story I’ve ever had to do for National Geographic. [Narwhals] are nearly impossible to get good pictures of in really nice, wild settings.”

When a colleague told Nicklen that it would be impossible to get the photos he wanted of narwhals, he went home, bought an ultra light plane and learned how to fly it so he could capture them in their natural environment.

When Nicklen and his Sri Lankan pilot friend Brian spotted narwhals from their plane, they landed and were able to get photos. “I was able to walk to these narwhals, who were kind of in holes in the ice, and it was in that moment when I knew I lived a dream. There were hundreds of whales; it was almost deafening to have so many around us.”

During his experience photographing narwhals, Nicklen made one of the most difficult decisions in his career: to shed light on local Inuit hunting practices that are harming narwhals.

He said, “The Inuit are my friends; they’ve taught me how to survive in this area, and I didn’t want to do this story, but as I’m out there watching this hunting take place myself, I’m collecting my own data. I’m watching it go on, and four or five whales are shot, sunk, or lost for each one retrieved. For me that’s unacceptable.”

Another animal that Nicklen wishes to give a face to is the incredibly rare kermode or spirit bear, unique to British Columbia.
Nicklen was able to get the pictures he wanted after two months of waiting. On the last ten days of his assignment he came into contact with a five-year-old male spirit bear. He said, “It was just one bear who let me in. I went from thinking, in a matter of days, that I could fail a story that was incredibly important to the First Nations communities in British Columbia, to covering the story.”

Nicklen’s photographs of that spirit bear inspired National Geographic to dedicate an entire issue to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project. In Nicklen’s opinion, his photographs were able to make the story that much stronger. See

Nicklen spoke lastly about leopard seals and emperor penguins in Antarctica. He said about this region, “It’s the same thing as the Arctic, it’s got the same problems with the loss of ice. Same problem, different cast of characters.”

Nicklen had a special experience with a female leopard seal that was bigger than the 12-foot boat that he and his assistant were in when they found her. He had a rare moment of fear when faced with getting in the water with this animal. He said, “You listen to your gut, and my gut was saying this is not a good idea.”

In this moment he reminded himself about something his editor at National Geographic frequently says to him, “We publish pictures, we can’t publish excuses. Go shoot some pictures.”

Despite his initial fear, the moments Nicklen spent with the female leopard seal came to be some of the most memorable of his career. She would attempt to feed him penguins, protect him from other seals, follow him, and play with him in the water. He said, “I’m either laughing because it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, or tears are streaming down my face. It was an incredible moment.”

Nicklen closes by telling the audience, “I’ve grown up in the North, and I’ve seen the loss and change in the ice. The urgency for me is now, and I’m going to keep telling these stories. At the end of the day what is going to make change is our collective will to demand a healthier planet. We have to wake up and do this.”


In this story

Keywords: photography, alumni

People: Paul Nicklen

Related stories