Wild Blue Yonder: Whale Photography with Flip Nicklin

A whale photographer on capturing the big picture.

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Story by Kat Ambrose

Flip Nicklin, whale photographer
Renowned photographer Flip Nicklin documents marine life behavior and social patterns, and he’s among the first to capture images of humpbacks by swimming along them in the deep.

Flip Nicklin

TITLE: Marine Wildlife Photographer & Marine Biologist

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL: Charles “Flip” Nicklin has had a lot of incredible underwater experiences. He’s made more than 5,500 dives, engaging with twenty-eight species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. One dive stands fins and tails above the rest: an encounter in the early 2000s that put him eye-to-eye with a male humpback.

Flip was in the waters between Lāna‘i and Kahoʻolawe when the whale circled, then swam straight towards him. The cetacean propped Flip up on the back of its pectoral fin and brought the astonished human in for a closer look. After what seemed a very long moment, Nicklin swam off the whale’s fin and watched it take a breath at the surface, then dive back into the deep. Amazingly, Flip kept filming the whole time. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he says. “I was just trying to stay calm and shoot what I was seeing.”

Web Exclusive: Watch Flip Nicklin’s close encounter with a humpback

DEVELOPING A PASSION: Nicklin was born into a diving family. (The nickname “Flip” came from the World War II-era action-adventure comic strip Terry and the Pirates.) He grew up working at his father’s dive shop in San Diego, and was helping to teach diving classes at fourteen years old. Nicklin Sr. was also an underwater cinematographer, so it would seem a slam dunk for Flip to follow in his dad’s swim fins. But it almost didn’t happen. “I was around my father’s world of photographers since I was fifteen years old,” he recalls. “It looked interesting, but didn’t seem [like a] realistic occupation.”

In 1976, Flip met National Geographic photographers Bates Littlehales and Jonathan Blair, and was offered a job as a diving assistant on an expedition. “I had just been in a bicycle accident, and used the settlement money to buy an underwater camera system. I spent three months working in the Northwest Hawaiian [Island] chain, watching photographers work, and got a couple pictures published in National Geographic Magazine.”

Flip’s first story for National Geographic, published in 1982, was on Maui’s humpback whales. He’s since published several books of marine photography. His passion for whales is evident not only in his photographs, but through Whale Trust Maui, which he cofounded with scientists Meagan Jones, Ph.D. and Jim Darling, Ph.D. The nonprofit’s mission is equal parts research and education, with the goal of encouraging marine conservation. Nicklin is part of Whale Trust’s research-photography team. He and videographer Jason Sturgis document—through photo and video—the behavioral and social patterns of Hawaiian humpback whales, one of the least-understood areas of whale research. Their work is key to Whale Trust’s understanding of whale song, relationships, and more.

MAKING SURE IT ALL CLICKS Preparing for a photo shoot requires careful planning—and being ready to jump in the water the moment opportunity strikes. The goal is to capture the photos that tell the story, and do so without disturbing the whales or changing their behavior. Living to tell that tale means playing it safe every dive—humpbacks can grow up to sixty feet long and weigh up to forty tons.

Federal law prohibits anyone—whether on or in the water—from coming within 100 yards of a humpback. As a marine photographer, Flip has to receive authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to get closer than that to a whale.

And he has good reason to do so. “It’s not [about] swimming with whales,” he says. “It’s [about telling] the story.”

BRING THE WHOLE POD

The 14th annual Whale Tales, presented by Whale Trust Maui, takes place February 14 through17 at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. The event attracts marine enthusiasts and experts alike to share the latest research on humpbacks and their habitat through talks and presentations, whale watches, and more. For details, visit WhaleTales.org.

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