MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine being attacked by a four-ton elephant seal in Antarctica or having a curious polar bear poke her head into your hut above the Arctic Circle. It's all in a day's work for photojournalist Paul Nicklen. He grew up in a tiny Inuit community on Canada's Baffin Island, a raw but magical world.
Mr. PAUL NICKLEN (Photojournalist): You're working with your hands all the time. You're building little sleds out of wood that you pretend you're a hunter and you tow your little load around or you tow a boat through the water. I mean, we had seals as pets. Just a completely different world. I just, I grasped it and fell in love with it instantly.
BLOCK: Paul Nicklen takes photographs of that world for National Geographic. His new book "Polar Obsession" is filled with amazing images - his visual testimony in defense of our threatened polar regions. Nicklen says he feels most at home diving under ten feet of ice.
Mr. NICKLEN: It's just so beautiful. It's extremely cold. I mean, you're on the ice, you're in a blizzard, the wind's howling. You think, you know, why in the hell am I doing this? Your fingers are frozen. You know, you're just trying to get your tank on and get your regulator in your mouth and you drop down through this little crack in the sea ice. And right there, the second you hit that water you know why you're doing it. You can see for 300 feet under the ice, just the best visibility in the world. And you look down, the ice is stained with plankton and you have all these shrimp-like copepods and amphipods coming by. And then you hear the
(Soundbite of whistling)
Mr. NICKLEN: the call of the beard seal like that that's echoing everywhere under the ice. You see beluga whales come by and maybe narwhals. And it's just really magical, but the only problem is how long can you stay in that world? After about 40 minutes, I'd say I'm getting fairly close to be hypothermic and I push myself too far at times where I've had to be dragged out on the ice and warmed up with hot water and put in sleeping bags so I could even function again. But it's easy to get carried away down there because it's so beautiful.
BLOCK: You tell a story in your book about going out in pursuit of bowhead whales. And you're on Baffin Island, where you grew up, and they're nowhere to be found. You're out there for a long time and you can't find them. You go out in a boat by yourself and you hear them before you see them.
Mr. NICKLEN: Right.
BLOCK: What'd they sound like?
Mr. NICKLEN: You know, you hear the whales about
(Soundbite of blowing air)
Mr. NICKLEN: you know, like a normal beluga whale and a narwhal. Like, even a smaller
(Soundbite of blowing air)
Mr. NICKLEN: But you turn off your engine and it's midnight, the air is calm, theres not any wind. You can just hear for miles. And you hear that big just
(Soundbite of blowing air)
Mr. NICKLEN: and you know that you have lungs that are bigger than two VW vans exhaling that amount of air into the Arctic sky.
BLOCK: Well, here's the story you tell: You've heard them, you can't see the whales, until you realize that your boat is directly on top of a whale. I feel like I've seen this cartoon. The guy in the boat and the whale spouts and the boat's on top of the whale spout.
Mr. NICKLEN: I almost feel silly telling this story because it's so hard to believe. And you're right, it's like some kind of cartoon. And, yeah, I was out motoring along the ice edge looking for the whales, looking for the whales and I could finally see some whales in the distance and that's what I was trying to sneak up, going very slowly, just above idle speed along the ice.
And I looked out in front of me and I saw this big blow, and it was the head of the whale. And as the whale's rising - he's coming up in front of me -and at that point I was trapped 'cause his back is now coming up underneath my boat. And the whale is 60 feet long. It's over 100 tons. As he comes to the surface - the visibility was very bad - he realized that I was sitting now right on top of his back. His back was maybe a foot below the boat.
It's just a tiny little boat, 12 feet long with a little motor. And he froze and I froze. So, I put the engine into neutral, but now he's coasting and I'm coasting with him at the exact same speed. And so all I did was take the engine and just very gently put it into reverse and that got its attention and made the whale scared.
And he did this big arch - he panicked. And I bounced sort of off his back. But his tail, the lobes of his tail, came folded around into the boat and I ducked to miss the tail. And it just brought in a couple hundred gallons of water into this little boat, and he dove and I was fine. I was just sitting there sort of in disbelief that this had just happened. And I motored the boat up to the ice and dragged the boat up on the ice and just spent, you know, a while bailing the water out of the boat.
BLOCK: Were you shooting pictures while this was happening?
Mr. NICKLEN: Oh no, not at that point.
BLOCK: Were you thinking, though, after the fact, I guess once the panic was over, I can't believe I was that close to the bowhead. It was literally all around me and I didn't get a shot.
Mr. NICKLEN: A lot of photographers see the world through their cameras, and I love these animals so much, I just like to just sit there and watch. And so, no, I mean, you have these experiences and they're almost as special as the pictures themselves. You get to, you know, when I'm on my deathbed I really think I'm going to be thinking of the bowhead experience and I'm not going to be looking at a bunch of pictures of my wall.
BLOCK: We're going to go to the other polar obsession of yours, Antarctica. And you describe a female leopard seal maybe, what, 1,100 pounds?
Mr. NICKLEN: Probably 1,100 pounds, 12 feet long.
BLOCK: Who takes a quite a fancy to you. These are - can be vicious animals, but she seems to like you. What did she do?
Mr. NICKLEN: They have this really bad reputation. They like to bite boats and puncture pontoons. And so I just really wanted to go down to Antarctica and get to know this seal. And a friend of mine, my guide, Godan Ilna(ph) from Sweden has been in the water with them and told me that he thinks they're intelligent communicative animals and I took his word on it. So, we went together.
So, we're sitting and watching it and this big female came and grabbed the penguin. She came up to the boat, she started killing the penguin under the boat, lifting the hull out of the water. And this is my first encounter with a leopard seal. Now, there's blood in the water and then she starts to do the death shake where she's trying to turn the penguin inside out so she can eat the meat. This is all right in front of the boat, and that's where Godan said to me, he goes, it's time for you to get in the water, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. NICKLEN: You know, and I was like, and I said, you know, forget that. There's, you know, probably starting with a different word than that. So, and I, you know, at that point he says, no, you get in the water, this is it, this is good. And I had dry mouth, my legs were shaking, I was nervous. And - 'cause this is a huge seal - it's bigger than our boat - and she's killing the penguin viciously in front of us.
And so, yeah, I took the leap of faith and I slipped over the edge of the boat with my mask and snorkel on and my suit and offered myself to her. Now I'm hers if she wants me. And she just, she came up to me, took my camera and her teeth were above my head and below my head engulfing me, and she did this big threat display. She struck at me like a cobra a bunch of times, probably not knowing who I was or what I wanted. She was just establishing her dominance. I just kept taking pictures.
And she did this for maybe half an hour and then she completely relaxed, went off and got a penguin, a live penguin, stopped about ten feet from me and let the penguin go. And the penguin swam towards me and got away. And so she looked at me, kind of - she really did have a dejected look on her face. Youd hate to anthropomorphize, but when she swam by me, she looked over at me, like, you know, are you useless? You know, and she went off, got the penguin, did this a bunch of times.
BLOCK: She was trying to feed you.
Mr. NICKLEN: She's trying to feed me or see what I wanted or to see if I could catch a live penguin. I couldn't.
BLOCK: And we have this sequence of pictures on NPR.org. You have a sequence of shots showing this seal bringing you penguin after penguin. There's one with a penguin in her mouth. Shes sort of upside down.
Mr. NICKLEN: So, if you look at that picture and then, now, this - the previous one, she's starting to get herself into these little elegant poses. She's trying to make herself look elegant and she's slowly bobbing towards me. And then if you flip the page, she's doing these, like, ballet-like moves, sliding down in this beautiful posture down the iceberg. And she tried everything. And then that next picture is her bringing me a dead penguin and then getting frustrated. That's a threat display in the animal world. She would blow bubbles at me, I think, frustrated that I just wasn't taking the penguins.
BLOCK: She's pointing at the penguin with her nose. The penguin's floating on the water and she's saying, what more do I have to do?
Mr. NICKLEN: Yeah, exactly. And I think it's much more than just her trying to feed me. It's a real attempt at intra-species communication. But, yeah, you know, I don't recommend people just go put their hand in a leopard seal's mouth without, you know, its - I'll spend weeks, days, months sometimes getting to know one animal before I'll get close to it and take a picture of it.
Mr. NICKLEN: Patience. That book should've been called Patience and Passion, really.
BLOCK: Paul Nicklen, thank you very much.
Mr. NICKLEN: Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: Paul Nicklen's new book of photographs is titled "Polar Obsession."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.