His head has been clamped in the razor-toothed jaws of a leopard seal. He has scampered up an iceberg to escape a bellicose walrus, and survived close encounters with polar bears, grizzlies and seawater so frigid that his body gave up shivering.
But the only things that really scare National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen are humble black bears, New York subways…and climate change.
“The ice could be disappearing in the next four- to 15 years… If we lose ice in the Arctic, we will lose a lot of species,” Paul warned an Earth Day audience of 500 schoolchildren at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
He is scheduled to give a second talk at 7:30 tonight, April 22, 2014, sponsored by BASF.
Free tickets went fast, but it’s worth calling the box office at 973-539-8008. This man’s photographs are out of this world–or darned close.
The Canadian biologist, who grew up among Inuit tribes in Greenland, has spent most of his adult life near the North- and South Poles, variously documenting the lives of penguins, three-ton elephant seals and bowhead whales with lifespans that stretch back to before the Industrial Revolution–before humans began unleashing greenhouse gases that most scientists now believe are threatening the whales’ icy domain.
“I love ecosystems,” Paul, 45, told an audience that included Toni Hopcraft’s second-grade class from the Hillcrest School. The pupils peppered Paul with questions while posing for pictures with him.
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Paul’s photos are on Instagram.
With his partner and fellow photographer Cristina Mittermeier, he promotes marine conservation at SeaLegacy.org.
During his rare down time, Paul mountain bikes or kayaks– sans camera. Among his thousands of pictures, there is one category he promises you never will see:
Marine biology was fascinating, Paul told his new fans. But he felt he could make a bigger impact with a camera.
“I thought if I could just get a job with National Geographic, I could reach 40 million people with one story.”
He has produced 15 stories in as many years at the prestigious magazine, while winning numerous awards. Intense pressure — “We publish pictures, not excuses!” National Geographic editors often remind him–has pushed him to take risks.
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Frostbite is like sunburn to Paul. He has braved vomit-inducing 30-foot Antarctic seas, three months of tundra isolation, and pneumonia during dives with killer whales off the Norway coast. Temperatures of minus-50 with 100 mph winds are just another day at the office.
Against his better judgment, Paul said, he plunged into a frenzy of leopard seals gnoshing on penguins. One mini-van-sized leopard seal took pity on him and tried–repeatedly–to feed him some birds, living and deceased.
Walruses give him jitters–“If they’re nervous, they hit you”–and elephant seals are to be avoided during breeding season. Unless, of course, you have a pressing deadline for National Geographic.
Since boyhood, Paul has enjoyed a special relationship with bears. One of his photographic coups was scoring shots of the elusive Spirit Bear, a strain of black bear with white fur in British Columbia.
In New Jersey, black bears generally are regarded as gentle creatures. While Paul acknowledged that the perception largely is true, he fears this breed more than its bigger cousins, grizzlies and polar bears.
“Grizzlies always communicate. They will swat and huff at you. Same with polar bears,” he said. “But black bears? It’s amazing, when they decide they are hungry, nothing will stop them.”
His closest call, however, came in a New York subway, from a drug-crazed attacker. Paul said a female companion shoved him through the turnstile to safety.