Flip Nicklin, Whale Photographer Extraordinaire, Tells Tales at the Ripley Center

Flip Nicklin, one of the world’s leading whale photographers, shares stories from his career at the Ripley Center for a Smithsonian Associates event

Humpback whale female
Humpback whale female with cooperating males around her. She just slapped her pectoral on the surface which caused the bubbles. ©Flip Nicklin, from Among Giants

On Monday, July 11, at 7:00 p.m., at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, one of the world’s leading whale photographers, Charles “Flip” Nicklin, will be sharing personal tales about the depths he goes to in his quest to shoot the gorgeous marine images that have become synonymous with his name. Many of these can be found in his new book, Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

Nicklin hit the ocean swimming. His father Chuck, an underwater cinematographer, naturalist and one-time San Diego dive shop owner, had taught his young son to dive by the age of eleven. The elder Nicklin provided the impetus for his son’s cetacean photographic habit, in 1963 when a picture of Chuck riding astride a Bryde’s whale was published in a number of national magazines and caught the eye of National Geographic photographer Bates Littlehales, who wanted to swim with the whales.

The elder Nicklin and his son soon became dive instructors to a host of prominent National Geographic photographers—providing a mentoring relationship for a budding photographer that could not be beat.

“In retrospect, I can see that my dad’s encounter with a whale in the wild influenced the direction of my own life,” he writes in his new book. Nicklin became one of the first photographers to swim with whales and shoot them in their natural habitat. By the early 1980s, Nicklin was the go-to-guy for whale photography.

The sheer amount of time that Nicklin spends in the field is a measure of his dedication to his craft. For the past 27 years he has averaged eight months a year in the field. He can free dive to depths of nearly 100 feet, leaving behind his oxygen tank so that bubbles will not disturb his photo subjects.

And Nicklin wants to make sure the great mammals are looked after and well-researched. In 2001, he co-founded the Whale Trust to promote and carry out scientific research on whales and their environment. “It’s not just that we don’t kill them all,” he told Capital City Weekly earlier this April, “it’s that we cherish them.”

I caught up with Flip Nicklin, a Juneau, Alaska resident via email:

For many people, the idea of swimming with whales or dolphins is merely a fantasy, but you do it on a regular basis. What are a few surprising things about that activity or the animals’ behaviors that people might not expect?

There have been many surprises over the years, but the time it takes to get these opportunities was one . . . . Another thing is the varied personalities of individual whales and dolphins, and working with researchers who spend their lives getting to know whales has been great. Looking into the eye of a whale or dolphin, above or underwater, changes you. I wish everyone that opportunity.

When photographing animals underwater there’s often not much in the way of natural light. How do you usually deal with that?

I am always aware of light and shadow. In the early day with ASA 64 film it was tough to expose properly and still stop the action. Often it didn’t work. I am really enjoying my new Nikons that allow me to shoot at high speeds with great depth of field. If I ever think I had it hard, I just think of the guys before me and feel very lucky to have come along at a time when we were not just learning a lot about cetaceans, but camera gear was evolving to make it easier to document what was learned.

Do scientists ever help out as photo assistants on your underwater photo shoots, or do you pretty much fly solo?

I usually used any budget for assistants for researchers to help. I was looking over the shoulder of the scientists for most of my work. Especially in working with endangered species, I was very happy with the knowledge they shared and the room they made for me to cover their projects.

Do you prefer free diving for your photo shoots when possible, and if so, why?

That is really a little funny. Free diving has come so far that I am amazed, but I try. I free dive because it is quiet and fast. The good opportunities in the water are rare and often short. I don’t want to make too much noise and disturb behavior I’m trying to shoot. Also I don’t want to take time getting in the water and miss the action. Re-breathers and remote cameras will give us some great looks at whales in the future. I think we have just begun.

How do you keep your breathing skills sharp for diving?

I have to train more every season to do what used to be very easy. If possible we try to get to Maui a month before the season and dive or swim every day. As I get older the days waiting on the boat and not doing much take a greater toll. It is still fun to try each year to do new stuff, and when researchers like Dr. Jim Darling get excited about a new study, I always want to go.

You’ve published books previously. So what was the impetus for your new book, “Among Giants: A Life with Whales?”

Most of my work has illustrated other people’s stories. This book is much more personal.

You get to shoot in some unfavorable conditions–have things ever gotten too close for comfort in a situation?

Yes, more often with weather and equipment than with animals, but one must respect these large, powerful creatures. I am pretty cautious, and again, I am usually not the one running the boat. I do remember my father telling me that, “If you get dead, you don’t take any more good pictures.”

What was your favorite underwater moment that you’ve been able to capture?

Probably the day the curious humpback picked me up on its pectoral. If I didn’t have video, I probably wouldn’t even tell people. A very fun nine seconds.

How do you think your work has contributed to the conservation of whales?

In two ways:
1. My images helped illustrate our changing relationship with whales and dolphins and highlight the research and researchers I covered.
2. Since 1996 I co-founded Whale Trust with Dr. Jim Darling and new Dr. Meagan Jones and have helped support their work. Being a bigger part of one small set of studies has been my biggest and proudest accomplishment.

A Life with Whales” Smithsonian Resident Associates evening lecture with Charles “Flip” Nicklin takes place Monday, July 11, from 7:00-8:30pm in the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Tickets are $25 general admission, $15 for Resident Associate members, and $13 for senior members. Nicklin will be available for a book signing afterwards. See Nicklin’s work in Smithsonian magazine’s May 2009 “In Search of the Mysterious Narwhal.”

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.