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February 8, 2015: Photographing “Snottites,” Dodging Humpbacks With Feeding Orcas, and More

HOUR 1 – Orcas, or “killer whales,” are the apex predators of the seas. But on a recent expedition, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen ended up feeling sorry for the 6 ton sea mammals while they were being used as waiters by a population of humpback whales off the coast of Norway. Nicklen explains that...

“These Snottites are a biofilm of single-celled extremophilic bacteria which hangs down from the walls and ceilings of Cueva de Villa Luz. They are imilar to small stalactites, but have the consistency of snot. Each drop on the end of the Snottite is pure sulphuric acid.” (Photo by Robbie Shone/


– Orcas, or “killer whales,” are the apex predators of the seas. But on a recent expedition, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen ended up feeling sorry for the 6 ton sea mammals while they were being used as waiters by a population of humpback whales off the coast of Norway. Nicklen explains that the orcas would gather fish into a tight bait ball, only to have a humpback charge through and steal the orcas’ dinner. Nicklen also had a close encounter with the inside of a humpback’s mouth that led him to ponder just how he would die. Nicklen also tells about a recent work trip to Hawaii where the photographer gained access to the notoriously tough local Hawaiian surfer scene. His photos are featured in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

– Dodging dangling “snottites” is a hazard that sounds as if it would be reserved for doctors and elementary school teachers. But photographer Robbie Shone says that it is also a hazard of exploring deep inside some of Mexico’s most extensive cave systems. The danger of these dangling, mucus-like collection of microbes is that they produce sulfuric acid, so Shone explains that they’re definitely worth dodging. Shone explains what it’s like deep in these caves, where he has to wear a gas-mask just to take photos.

– On the heels of the recent Outdoor Retailer conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, ultramarathon runner and reporter Rebecca Byerly shared thoughts on the trends to watch in 2015. At the retail show, REI donated $1.5 million to better develop women as executives and leaders in outdoor industries; outdoor companies work to balance fashion with real adventure functionality; and lightweight action cameras take another leap forward with VSN Mobil’s offering that shoots 360 degrees simultaneously, removing the pesky need to direct the camera in order to film adventure sports.

– Traumatic brain injury in sports is an increasingly recognized affliction incurred from repeated impacts to the head. But Caroline Alexander explains that it’s now being researched as a cause of U.S. veterans feeling sick, unfocused and depressed after they return from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the soldiers might not have any visible trauma, shockwaves from bombs could potentially reverberate under helmets and damage the brain, through the skull. Alexander says that many veterans have been reluctant to report these types of injuries because of the lack of understanding of injuries that don’t leave visible scars. Alexander’s article “The Invisible War on the Brain,” appears in the Feburary, 2015 National Geographic magazine.

– South Sudan is the world’s newest country. But the young nation has had its share of difficulties. Even so, National Geographic hosted one of its Photography Camps in the country, to empower young people to tell their own stories through images, and potentially train the next generation of professional photographers. One of South Sudan’s Photo Camp students, Duku Stephen Savio explains how he learned composition, the power of light as a photographic tool. He also explains his hope for South Sudan’s peaceful future.


– Niagara Falls, like most waterfalls, is a renowned showcase for the powers of gravity. Water, and sometimes people, go over the edges of the falls drawn by a current heading toward the Atlantic Ocean. But recently, the falls were a venue for ice climbers Will Gadd and Sarah Hueniken to spurn gravity and climb up North America’s most powerful faucet. The water, turned to ice by the powers of winter, supported Gadd and Hueniken up the 167 foot face, as water poured over the edge next to him. Gadd explains that the climb up Niagara Falls was the most difficult climb of his life, simply for the logistical headache of acquiring permission from the New York State Park Police.

Dr. Jan Pol is a Michigan-based veterinarian who has been in the business of healing farm animals for the past 44 years. The indefatigable doctor has also starred in the eponymous “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” on the Nat Geo WILD channel for the past 5 years. He shared some wisdom from his years as an animal healer with Boyd: “Don’t leave your money laying around,” so your dog doesn’t eat change; Magnets can substitute as medical devices if your cow eats metal; and “Never turn your back on a cow.”

– With the ongoing war in Iraq and Syria between ISIS and national forces, refugee camps are swelling with people fleeing for their lives. But winter isn’t doing the area any favors. Cold weather, uncertain food, and lacking fuel sources leave refugees huddled together to try to avoid freezing, says Cairo-based reporter Peter Schwartzstein. He¬†visited several refugee camps in late December and reports that even though the camps are intended to take in people fleeing conflict temporarily, it’s hard to imagine that all of the estimated 14 million refugees will make their way home.

– The well-documented phenomenon of cross-species friendships promoted by the internet have elicited many ooh’s and aah’s from people the world over. But New York Times science reporter Erica Goode explains that scientists can’t seem to agree whether or not there is any actual friendship possible between dogs and donkeys, or lions and antelope. Goode explains that dogs are adept at reading other animals (including people), so they often make friends with other animals. Goode also points out that species may interact in the wild, but it hasn’t ever been documented that two wild animals play in the wild, in the absence of humans.

– In this week’s Wild Chronicles segment, Boyd gives a crash course in how not to ice climb: trust your axe’s grip on the ice; climb with your legs, instead of your arms; and keep your hands as warm as possible.

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Meet the Author

Justin O'Neill
Justin O'Neill produces the weekly radio program National Geographic Weekend with host Boyd Matson. Check it out on on SiriusXM satellite radio (XM channel 133 Sundays at noon), subscribe to the iTunes podcast, or stream it directly to your smartphone with Stitcher Radio.