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Nat Geo photographer Paul Nicklen shares secrets of polar wildlife pictures

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen’s YouTube video “Face-Off With a Deadly Predator,” an account of his scary encounter with a leopard seal in the Antarctic, has been downloaded more than a million times. In this subsequent video interview with NatGeo News Watch, below, Nicklen shares his thoughts about leopard seals–and other polar predators he has studied since he...

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen’s YouTube video “Face-Off With a Deadly Predator,” an account of his scary encounter with a leopard seal in the Antarctic, has been downloaded more than a million times.

In this subsequent video interview with NatGeo News Watch, below, Nicklen shares his thoughts about leopard seals–and other polar predators he has studied since he was a boy growing up in a small Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic.

He talks about the patience and time needed to make the photographs of polar predators for ten National Geographic Magazine articles and for his new National Geographic book, Polar Obsession.

Video by David Braun

leopard-seal-(nicklen)-photo.jpgA large female leopard seal greets photographer Göran Ehlmé. Anvers Island, Antarctica (p. 161 of Paul Nicklen’s new book, Polar Obsession.)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic


A leopard seal feeds Paul Nicklen a penguin. Antarctic Peninsula (p. 36)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Growing up in the Arctic, Nicklen said, “We didn’t have a television…telephone…radio…so all of my entertainment came in the form of playing outside, and that meant being around animals…seeing my first polar bear when I was five years old.

“So you really learn from the time you are young how these animals work, what makes them tick. You learn about social hierarchy, and then most of all, the best thing you learn is their connection to the ecosystem,” he said.


Looking towards an uncertain future, a huge male bear triggers a camera trap, taking his own picture. Leifdefjorden, Spitsbergen, Norway (p.239)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

All this information plus a college degree in marine biology taught Nicklen how to approach and get up close to animals, to use body language to communicate with them, and devote many hours to get them used to his presence before getting into the water with them.


A large bull walrus returns to the shores of Prins Karl Forland after diving and feeding on clams. Svalbard, Norway (p. 150)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

What people don’t realize when they see his pictures, Nicklen says, is the sometimes days, weeks or months he needed to get the animals to care less about his presence.


Narwhals dive deep under the ice to feed on Arctic cod, then return to the surface to breathe and raise their tusks high in the air. Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada (p. 103)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

“The narwhals story…a chapter in the book, took me 15 years to try to figure it out,” Nicklen said. The project involved working with the Inuit, buying an ultralight plane, flying out to the remote pack ice in the Arctic, “and finally, in one day, getting all those images for that narwhal story. It’s just time and patience.”


© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Polar Obsession (National Geographic Books; November, 2009; $50; hardcover) is a showcase of Nicklen’s best pictures and an opportunity for him to share important insights into animal behavior, the fragile polar environment and climate change that threatens the ice and its inhabitants.


In the Arctic spring, meltwater channels drain toward and down a seal hole, returning to the sea. (p. 71)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

“The polar regions are disappearing quickly, and I want my photo essays to stand as a reminder of what is at stake. It is my mission to bring the rare, remote and threatened to caring people who can enjoy and help protect these lands and creatures,” Nicklen writes in his introduction.

The book includes 150 of Nicklen’s most spectacular images from the polar regions. Elephant seals, leopard seals, whales, walruses, narwhals, polar bears, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, arctic cod, and krill, are among the cast of characters he captures through his lens. To make these photos took many years of thinking and planning and sometimes many hours of waiting in difficult conditions for the right moment.


A kittiwake soars in front of a large iceberg. Svalbard, Norway (p. 29)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

In essays introducing each chapter, Nicklen describes the ice fields, floes and frozen seas that are the backdrop to his images.


A young polar bear leaps between ice floes. Barents Sea, Svalbard, Norway (p.16). Click on the feature “Ice Paradise” for more photos from Nicklen’s Svalbard assignment for National Geographic Magazine.

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

“Nicklen has risked his life many times in the 20 years he has been documenting the polar regions,” says the National Geographic news release about this book. “He has crashed his ultralight airplane, fallen through the sea ice, been lost in blizzards, bitten by fur seals, attacked by a walrus and an 8,000-pound elephant seal, charged by a grizzly bear and sniffed through the thin fabric wall of a tent by a polar bear.”


A gentoo penguin chick peeks, checking for patrolling leopard seals before tempting fate. Port Lockroy, Antarctic Peninsula (p. 166)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

“If I really want people to care about polar species, my images have to be wild and raw,” he writes. “I want people to feel what it’s like to be in the water, swimming three feet from a polar bear. I want them to experience what it’s like to be offered a penguin as food by a leopard seal. Only then will they really care about that habitat and that species.”


Paul Nicklen emerges numb from the cold after an hour under the ice. Admiralty Inlet, Nunavut, Canada (p. 15)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic


Mother bear and two-year-old cub drift on glacier ice. Hudson Strait, Nunavut, Canada (p. 77)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

Included in the book is a gear list detailing the enormous amount of equipment that accompanies Nicklen on his assignments, “likely more equipment than any other natural history photographer on the planet,” because Nicklen shoots above and below water.

He usually travels with 14 to 20 cases and hockey duffel bags weighing between 60 pounds and 70 pounds each. “Getting to and from location with all the gear is often the worst and hardest part of the assignment,” he writes. A list of some of the equipment Nicklen is currently using can also be found on his Web site.


Paul Nicklen on assignment. Lewes Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada. (not in book)

© 2009 Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn