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A Photographer's Polar Obsession

Today on All Things Considered, host Melissa Block speaks with National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen about his new book, Polar Obsession. Listen here.

How many people can say with nonchalance, "I've had good friends of mine ... eaten by grizzly bears"? Paul Nicklen can, for one. He's a National Geographic photographer who was raised in Canada's Arctic and has spent the past 20 years documenting extreme polar regions.

  • Raised in an Inuit community, Paul Nicklen has had an affinity for both the cold and for outdoor adventure from a young age. Today he travels to remote polar locations to capture rare scenes. In this photo, a mother walrus and her newborn pup rest on a piece of multiyear ice in Foxe Basin north of Hudson Bay in Nunavut, Canada.
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    Raised in an Inuit community, Paul Nicklen has had an affinity for both the cold and for outdoor adventure from a young age. Today he travels to remote polar locations to capture rare scenes. In this photo, a mother walrus and her newborn pup rest on a piece of multiyear ice in Foxe Basin north of Hudson Bay in Nunavut, Canada.
    Photos by Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
  • A leopard seal patrols a penguin rookery near Anvers Island, Antarctica. Nicklen uses special equipment to capture images half submerged in water, with a deep depth of field above water to focus on distant landscapes, and a sharp, shallower focus on wildlife below.
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    A leopard seal patrols a penguin rookery near Anvers Island, Antarctica. Nicklen uses special equipment to capture images half submerged in water, with a deep depth of field above water to focus on distant landscapes, and a sharp, shallower focus on wildlife below.
  • In one Antarctic adventure near Anvers Island, Nicklen befriended an enormous female leopard seal. In Nicklen's words, a seal's natural response toward an intruder is "breed or feed." After realizing that Nicklen was nonthreatening, this seal tried to feed him penguins, not knowing how else to interact with him.
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    In one Antarctic adventure near Anvers Island, Nicklen befriended an enormous female leopard seal. In Nicklen's words, a seal's natural response toward an intruder is "breed or feed." After realizing that Nicklen was nonthreatening, this seal tried to feed him penguins, not knowing how else to interact with him.
  • When Nicklen refused to eat the penguins, the leopard seal became more and more insistent in her efforts to feed him. "She's trying to make it a beautiful package," Nicklen describes. "She's trying to make herself look elegant ... doing these ballet-like moves."
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    When Nicklen refused to eat the penguins, the leopard seal became more and more insistent in her efforts to feed him. "She's trying to make it a beautiful package," Nicklen describes. "She's trying to make herself look elegant ... doing these ballet-like moves."
  • Over the course of a five-day photographic study, she brought him approximately 30 penguins, beginning with live penguins, then weaker penguins to make it easier for him, dead penguins — and even demonstrated how to eat one.
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    Over the course of a five-day photographic study, she brought him approximately 30 penguins, beginning with live penguins, then weaker penguins to make it easier for him, dead penguins — and even demonstrated how to eat one.
  • Two adult bowhead whales, each more than 45 feet in length, rest by a floe edge after diving under the ice to feed. Nicklen tells one story of accidentally parking his boat on top of a whale at night.
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    Two adult bowhead whales, each more than 45 feet in length, rest by a floe edge after diving under the ice to feed. Nicklen tells one story of accidentally parking his boat on top of a whale at night.
  • Parked on a whale's back, Nicklen barely escaped disaster by slowly backing up as the whale arched its back and curled its tail, dumping hundreds of gallons of water into his small boat. Rightfully overwhelmed, Nicklen did not snap a photo. But here, a bowhead whale dives to feed on copepods in Baffin Bay, Nunavut.
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    Parked on a whale's back, Nicklen barely escaped disaster by slowly backing up as the whale arched its back and curled its tail, dumping hundreds of gallons of water into his small boat. Rightfully overwhelmed, Nicklen did not snap a photo. But here, a bowhead whale dives to feed on copepods in Baffin Bay, Nunavut.
  • Elephant seals are a very large species that Nicklen photographed in the Antarctic. During breeding season, the males, distinguished by large proboscis noses, become disproportionately aggressive, attacking anything in sight to protect a beach of female seals. Two seals battle here at St. Andrews Bay.
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    Elephant seals are a very large species that Nicklen photographed in the Antarctic. During breeding season, the males, distinguished by large proboscis noses, become disproportionately aggressive, attacking anything in sight to protect a beach of female seals. Two seals battle here at St. Andrews Bay.
  • Nicklen tried for weeks to get a close-up portrait of a male elephant seal. Because the creatures are so aggressive during breeding season, it was a dangerous endeavor. In one instance, he barely escaped death when a bull attacked him. He eventually got his shot of this bull cooling off in fresh water in Stromness Harbour.
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    Nicklen tried for weeks to get a close-up portrait of a male elephant seal. Because the creatures are so aggressive during breeding season, it was a dangerous endeavor. In one instance, he barely escaped death when a bull attacked him. He eventually got his shot of this bull cooling off in fresh water in Stromness Harbour.
  • With all the attention received by polar bears and penguins, it's easy to forget the other important species in polar ecosytems. Here, a winged pteropod feeds in the open water.
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    With all the attention received by polar bears and penguins, it's easy to forget the other important species in polar ecosytems. Here, a winged pteropod feeds in the open water.
  • A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg in Svalbard, Norway.
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    A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg in Svalbard, Norway.
  • Nicklen writes in his book, "Of all the animals I have ever photographed, the Arctic's narwhals are the most mysterious, unusual and elusive. Because of their incredibly shy nature and advanced echolocation, underwater images of these magnificent creatures are rare."
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    Nicklen writes in his book, "Of all the animals I have ever photographed, the Arctic's narwhals are the most mysterious, unusual and elusive. Because of their incredibly shy nature and advanced echolocation, underwater images of these magnificent creatures are rare."
  • Nicklen's friend, the female leopard seal, greets a fellow adventurer near Anvers Island.
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    Nicklen's friend, the female leopard seal, greets a fellow adventurer near Anvers Island.
  • Admiralty Inlet breaks up in early July. Nicklen's hope is that his photographs will inspire viewers to care about something that they may never see in person.
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    Admiralty Inlet breaks up in early July. Nicklen's hope is that his photographs will inspire viewers to care about something that they may never see in person.

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Paul Nicklen

hide captionPolar Obsession (Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

Nicklen had a unique childhood. He grew up in a small and remote Inuit community on Baffin Island with no radio, no TV and no telephone. His idea of fun included lying in blizzards until his body went numb, building sleds and tending pet seals. It was a secluded youth — and to anyone else, a bit extreme. But to Nicklen, it was as idyllic as childhood gets. "I was taking care of dog teams by the time I was 5," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "It's just a completely different world, and ... I fell in love with it."

So it makes sense that his idea of fun today includes many of the same things: extreme temperatures, exploration and animal friendships. After a brief stint at the University of Victoria to earn a biology degree, Nicklen made a prompt return to Canada's Arctic, where he began a career as a nature photojournalist. "As I got to be older, as a biologist and photojournalist," he says, "I realized that these are the tools I can now use to protect the place that I fell in love with as a kid."

Paul Nicklen

hide captionNicklen blends in with the surroundings during a whiteout in East Svalbard

It's not an easy job. "In pursuit of the photographs I've taken over the past 20 years," he writes in the book's introduction, "I've crashed my ultra light airplane, fallen through the sea ice ... and suffered frostbite... I've also become lost in blizzards and been bitten by fur seals and elephant seals, charged by a grizzly bear, sniffed through the thin fabric of a tent by a polar bear."

All in a day's work. To Nicklen, though, it's worth the risk. "How are people supposed to care about the environment when they're living in a cement jungle?" he wonders in the interview. To make them care, he goes to extremes. Nicklen is on a mission to bring these remote habitats to those of us who may never see them, to make us care about the endangered polar ecosystems and the animals that inhabit them. His photos appear in a new book, Polar Obsession, published by National Geographic.

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