Polar Photographer Shares His View Of A Ferocious But Fragile Ecosystem

Jun 6, 2017
Originally published on June 7, 2017 11:17 am

Conservation photographer Paul Nicklen has spent more than two decades documenting the ice and wildlife in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth — the Arctic and the Antarctic.

It's a risky business: Nicklen often finds himself immersed in frigid waters, just a camera's length away from deadly predators. Once, in Antarctica, he came face-to-face with a 1,000-pound leopard seal: "She opened up her mouth and her head is twice as big as a grizzly bear, and I am starring down her throat," he says.

Nicklen adds that his utmost concern is for the well-being of the animals he encounters. "I want to get close, but I also never want to harass an animal," he says. "What you learn about these animals is how communicative they are, how intelligent they are, how social they are, how forgiving they are."


Interview Highlights

On how he's come to ignore his gut in dangerous situations

When it comes to working with these big predators ... your, sort of, innate fear mechanisms are telling you not to do it. So you're always ignoring your gut. And when you ignore your gut all the time, at some point you don't know where that benchmark is anymore. ... You're always stepping into this gray area and you're stepping over the line, and so now I've learned ... when my gut's really screaming at me, to slow down and be smart. I start to back up a little bit and just spend more quality time analyzing, thinking, watching and then ... moving on with it if it seems like the right decision. ...

I think I get so caught up in how important these stories are and how my images have to have that three-dimensional feel to them, to really bring people into the issues I care about, and I think I just get so focused sometimes on getting those images.

On not being afraid of dying doing his work

I'm not really scared of death, I just want my death to be cool, and I guess being speared by a narwhal would be a pretty cool way to go. ... I think if I'm out there pushing and trying to push the limits to come back with something amazing to connect the world to what I love, then sure.

On a memorable interaction with a leopard seal

This leopard seal stayed with me for four days straight. And every time I would show up on the water, she'd be there to greet me. She would follow me back to the sailboat at night. Once she established her dominance, she completely relaxed, and then she disappeared and I thought the encounter was over.

Then she showed up a few minutes later with a penguin in her mouth. She had just caught a penguin chick — she was holding it by the feet — and the penguin is flapping, trying to get away from her. And she would sort of line it up with me, and when it was lined up perfectly with me she would let it go, and it would swim off, she caught it, she did this over and over.

And I realized at that moment that she was trying to feed me a live penguin. And I think she realized quickly in this encounter that I was not capable of catching a live, moving, swimming penguin, and so she brought me another penguin. She did all these different attempts to feed me live penguins. And at one point ... there's a photo of her looking dejected, sort of disappointed in me that I'm so useless that I'm unable to catch or accept one of her gifts, so then she started to bring me dead penguins, and at one point I had five penguins floating around my head. ...

Further on in the encounter ... she got so tired of me being unable to accept one of her penguins that she grabbed it and she flipped it on top of my head.

On falling in love with the leopard seal

I definitely fell in love with this seal. It's embarrassing to admit this to you. ... I'd fall asleep at night with tears coming down my cheeks. ... I was just so grateful, just to spend your life out with animals and to be fighting to get yourself into a situation where you can try and get close, where you can try and even get within 100 meters of something.

And all of a sudden here's a top predator, and not only are you getting to see it, it's interacting with you; it's trying to force-feed you penguins, it's trying to take care of you. It's a very very humbling thing. ... Just to flop yourself into its world and for it to spend that much time and energy trying to figure out who you are and to interact with you. ... I think that's why I get emotional, because we had such a connection.

On what happens to the polar bears when the sea ice melts

In the last 20 years, to have the scientists talking about how we're reaching the lowest extent of ice we've ever had, a place like Svalbard, Norway historically has been covered by sea ice year-round. In the last 20 to 30 years that ice has been just in a few fjords, and then now in the last few years there's been no ice at all around Svalbard. There's been a little strip down on the east side.

And when there's no ice that means bears basically do not have that platform to catch seals, and that's their main food source. They might eat a little bit of seaweed ... they might get the odd bird egg or the odd bird, but that's not giving them any nutritional value.

Essentially, bears are designed to go on land for long periods of time. They can be on land for two months and not eat a meal. But they're not designed to go four or five or six months on land without eating any food, and that's where we're starting to find emaciated bears, dead bears. ...

I've never had a scary moment with a polar bear, and people come to me like, "Isn't that the only animal that actively pursues humans for food?" And I just see this powerful, but very fragile, vulnerable species that is so at the mercy of its ecosystem. And it's sort of the one species that I really use to drive home that connection to how important this icy ecosystem is. I want people to realize that ice is like the soil in the garden — without ice the polar regions cannot exist.

Radio producers Amy Salit and Thea Chaloner and Web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Some of the most dramatic consequences of climate change are happening out of view of most people in the Arctic and Antarctica, but you can see some of those changes in the dramatic and beautiful photos taken by my guest Paul Nicklen. He describes himself as a conservation photographer.

He's been photographing the Arctic and Antarctica since 1995, taking pictures of polar bears, penguins, sea animals and the ice. He spent a lot of time in frigid waters taking underwater photos. The threat of hypothermia and of getting attacked by predators makes it a risky business.

Despite the inhospitable temperatures he works in, Nicklen feels at home. He grew up in an Inuit community just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. Nicklen has done about 20 stories for National Geographic. He and his partner and fellow photographer Cristina Mittermeier founded the group SeaLegacy, which uses photography and film to inspire people to protect the oceans.

In April, he opened the Paul Nicklen Gallery in Manhattan for fine art conservation photography. The new exhibit, The Water's Edge, is timed to coincide with this week's Oceans Conference at the U.N. Thursday is World's Ocean Day. Nicklen recently returned from Svalbard, Norway, in the Arctic Circle, where he documented the effects of the melting permafrost.

Paul Nicklen, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of your most famous photos has to do with melting in Svalbard. This is a photo that Al Gore has used to illustrate the changes caused by climate change. And it's basically like a glacier that's become a waterfall because of melting ice.

PAUL NICKLEN: Absolutely. It is one of my favorite images. You know, we were working in Svalbard photographing. It was a really traumatic day because we had been photographing polar bears and traveling around Svalbard. There was no sea ice to be found anywhere. The bears were stranded on land.

And I was - actually had philanthropists who were - who I was, you know, guiding, bringing with us to do our SeaLegacy work. And they were, you know, allowing us to show them what's at stake as well allowing us to do our journalism and our storytelling. And that day, in the morning, I had found them finally some polar bears that were sleeping.

And we sat there waiting for hours for the bears to get up until I realized that the Bears were probably never going to get up. And I walked up to the bears and they were both dead. They had starved to death. And they were young, 3-year-old bears on the shores of Svalbard. And it was just a gut-wrenching moment. We filmed it and documented it.

And then later that night, we had to move the vessel because of a really big storm was coming in. Winds were up to 80 knots. And we came around down behind the ice cap of Nordaustlandet at the north east ice cap of Svalbard just to get out of the wind from the storm. And as the light hit this ice face of the ice cap, to look back and to see not only was, you know, the outside temperature 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but to see 20 waterfalls in a row just gushing off the top of this ice cap.

And then you start to tie that to the science that's coming out, that it's the first time in recorded history that the entire ice cap of Greenland is melting. And then, you know, so it's just - yeah, it was just a really powerful humbling moment. And I was - I felt very lucky to be able to capture all these waterfalls, you know, pouring off the top of this ice cap.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned the photograph that you took in 2014 of a dead polar bear, and you'd found two dead polar bears on that trip. How does that connect to climate change?

NICKLEN: I mean, for me, it's, you know, and I was - I was a biologist. I worked on polar bears throughout the Arctic and helped, you know, look at population dynamics and movement patterns and. You know, in all those years of flying around in helicopters and driving across the sea ice on snowmobiles and looking for bears, I never found a dead polar bear. You very - for some reason, you very rarely find dead bears.

And in the last 20 years, to have the scientists talking about how we're, you know, we're reaching the lowest extent of ice we've ever had, a place like Svalbard, Norway, historically has been covered by sea ice year-round. And in the last 20 to 30 years, that ice has been just in a few fjords.

And then now in the last few years, there's been no ice at all around Svalbard. There's been a little strip down the east side. And when there's no ice, that means bears basically do not have that platform to catch seals, and that's their main food source. They might eat a little bit of seaweed, but they might get the odd bird egg or the odd bird, but that's not giving them any nutritional value.

Essentially, bears are designed to go on land for long periods of time. They can be on land for two months and not eat a meal. But they're not designed to go four or five or six months on land without eating any food. And that's where we're starting to find emaciated bears, dead bears. You know, in Alaska, in the Beaufort where there's really - ice has taken a beating, especially that multi-year ice that lives for many years, they're finding dead bears floating out in the sea.

And these are most likely bears that have attempted to swim from the ice pack in the summer, in the fall back to land. And if they have to swim, you know, several hundred miles and they're already a skinny bear, they are going to suffer from hypothermia as well. So when you start to see these examples - but, you know, it's time to have hope too in the sense that this year I went looking for skinny bears.

And there was a lot of ice in Svalbard. Compared to the last 20 years, it was a pretty good ice year. But compared to 40 years ago, it was still a bad ice year. But we found some, you know, really fat, heavy bears that could hardly walk they were so fat just 'cause they're getting to hunt late into the season. And you just see how tied they are to their food source. If they don't have seals, they're going to get hungry. If they have seals, you're going to get fat bears.

GROSS: You have a photo that I think is pretty recent of a mother polar bear and her cub stranded on a small piece of glacier ice. Would you describe the photo and tell us how you interpret it?

NICKLEN: Yeah, absolutely. So that's a very good point. And when you say, you know, people see bears standing on ice and they think they're fine. But in this case for me, it was very important to put that photograph in context. It's a mother and her 2-year-old cub standing on a piece of glacier ice drifting out in the middle of the ocean.

We were over 150 miles from land anywhere. And we were not around any pack ice at all. So at this point, the mother and her cub are basically stranded drifting out to sea on a pan of ice or on a piece of glacier ice hoping to probably at some point get deposited off near land where they could at least see land or smell land and be able to get her cub safely to land.

When they're on glacier ice like that, it's not like a seal is just going to hop up in the ice and just, you know, present itself and they're going to build a kill a seal. When the bears are in that situation, they're not catching. They're not hunting. They're not killing. They're not eating. So you see, you know, for - initially, again, it's the art part. It's beautiful to look at.

And then when you start to assess the image - and I think that's what most people are not doing right now. They're not stopping and asking why or what it means. And that's another image for me that starts to create conversation and drive debate, which is - which serves its purpose.

GROSS: So polar bears have a very special place in your work and in your life. Like, what's their importance to you personally?

NICKLEN: I think the fact that having grown up in the high Arctic with the Inuit as a kid and just spending so much time throughout my life with bears. You know, I've seen probably - if I had to guess - over 2,000 polar bears in the wild. And to have spent so much quality time sort of in intimate settings with them throughout my life from the time I was young.

And then mostly as a young adult, when I was working as a biologist and living out on the sea ice for, you know, three, four or five months at a time, and spending so much time with bears that you just sort of fall in love with these species. And you get to know it so intimately. And, you know, I've never had a scary moment with a polar bear. And everyone - people come to me, it's like, isn't that the only animal that actively pursues humans for food?

And I just see this sort of powerful but very fragile, vulnerable species that is so at the mercy of its ecosystem. And it's sort of the one species that I really use to drive home that connection to how important this ice ecosystem is.

I want people to realize that ice is like the soil in the garden. Without ice, the polar regions cannot exist. When you have healthy ice, you've got the big crops of copepods and amphipods, those crustaceans that live on the bottom of the ice. You've got the algae that they feed on underneath the ice. And then you've got polar cod. And then you've got seals.

And you've - obviously at the top of the food chain - and you've got the bowhead whales. You've got narwhals and belugas. And then you've got, you know, of course, the polar bear at the very top. And you see how in bad ice years all these species stand to suffer. And so ice is that important. And polar bears allow me to talk about ice. I think that's why I love them so much.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is conservation photographer Paul Nicklen. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is conservation photographer Paul Nicklen. He specializes in photographing the polar regions. And he's done about 20 stories for National Geographic. He co-founded SeaLegacy, a group that uses photography film and video for storytelling to motivate people to become active in preserving our oceans.

In April, he opened a gallery in Manhattan for fine art conservation photography. It's called the Paul Nicklen Gallery. And the new exhibit, The Water's Edge, is timed to coincide with this week's Oceans Conference at the U.N. And this Thursday, June 8, is World Ocean Day.

So you photograph, like, many, many polar bears. And you've seen about 2,000 of them. And I think it's easy for people, in some ways, to relate to polar bears because they're just so impressive and attractive looking. But you also spend a lot of time photographing creatures that, you know, aren't going to be like, you know, cute or impressive like that by people's standards, you know? So I'm thinking here of, like, the narwhal, which is - let me ask you to describe what a narwhal is.

NICKLEN: Yeah. It's so funny when I do, you know, lectures and audiences of, you know, sometimes a couple of thousand people and I'm like - I get so excited - like, who knows what a narwhal is? And you see maybe a hundred hands go up out of 2,000. And you just sort of assume that everybody knows what a narwhal is.

I mean, it's just funny that we're so in love with unicorns - you know, the horse with a tusk. And all of a sudden, there really is a unicorn out there. It just happens to be in - something so much more amazing to see a 16-foot long whale. Monodon monoceros means one tooth. And it has - doesn't have any teeth in its mouth. But it has two teeth that grow out of its upper jaw. And they go straight out from their head. And so it goes out on the left helix spiral. And that's the tusk of the narwhal.

So it's a 16-foot long whale. And really big tusks can grow up to 11 feet. And very, very rarely do both teeth actually protrude and grow out from the upper jaw. And that gets - you know, they call them double tuskers. But sometimes you can, you know, see this poor whale that has to swim around with probably, you know, 40, 50 pounds of ivory strapped to its head, you know, that's 11 feet long. It's got a lot to be - to carry around in the ice, especially.

GROSS: So these are like whales with an ivory spear attached to its head?

NICKLEN: It's basically a beluga whale that's got this gray-ish (ph) speckled color that has - yeah - a long, long ivory task, you know? It's up to 11 feet.

GROSS: So you've taken a lot of photographs of narwhals. But it took you years to find them. Why was it hard?

NICKLEN: Narwhals are extremely difficult to photograph. Very few people - you know, Flip Nicklin, who was my original mentor, has seen them underwater and photographed males. It's just very rare, you know? You have the big film crews have been working up there. The BBC, National Geographic, NHK have been chasing them for years.

And, you know, I just would be up there with the Inuit for years every season trying to get narwhals. And it's just they're shy. They're smart. They're elusive. You know, the Inuit are hunting them. So when they're being hunted, they don't want to be anywhere, you know, near the ice cracks. So they're staying out in the open water.

And it was after years of going up there and trying to find narwhals - at least to have that intimate moment again where I could be alone with this animal. So I wanted to be - I always want to be close to my subjects. I want to be able to reach out and, you know, pet a narwhal. And then I know I'm photographing with a wide-angle lens, almost like this three-dimensional sensation with these animals.

And I want to transport people into my images. So I thought, how am I going to get close to these narwhals? And I finally figured out if I could go home and get a little airplane and learn how to fly it at ultralight and put some amphibious Teflon floats on the bottom, that'll glide across the sea ice. Then I can keep my airplane on the sea ice for, you know, months at a time. And when the weather is right, we could just fuel up the plane take off out over the pack ice and land on a floating pan of ice next to a bunch of narwhals.

And, you know, we did that for two years. And we really, really struggled. It didn't go well. And, finally, you know, after years of trying this, you know, we - the first time we flew, we got carb ice. And we ended up - the engine ended up shutting down on us as we're a thousand feet above the sea ice, 50 miles offshore - just my friend and I flying this little ultralight with the doors off. And I thought for sure we were going to end up in trouble. And, you know, and then we ended up breaking the crank shaft. And so we had a very bad landing - a crash landing back at our ice camp. You know, we called Rotax and ordered up a new engine and had it shipped overnight FedEx, which, you know, took six weeks for it to arrive up there. And we had...

GROSS: (Laughter).

NICKLEN: We had Inuit hunters go out with sleds and pick up this new engine. And we installed the new engine. And it, too, had some problems. But finally, on the last two days of the project, we were - nobody else was on the ice because it was so rotten. And we took off in this airplane and not expected to see much. And first, we saw a couple of narwhals. And then we saw hundreds. And then we saw thousands of narwhals.

GROSS: Thousands of them?

NICKLEN: Thousands. And we landed on the ice. And we landed on a pan of ice right next to a mother and her cub polar bear. Got out. And there were just narwhals absolutely everywhere. And I was so excited. I knew in that moment that in eight years of trying, that we just shot an entire assignment. We shot the most important pictures ever taken of narwhals in just a few-hour period.

We went back to camp. Went to fuel up the airplane. I fell through the sea ice - dislocated my shoulder as I was going through the ice. And at that point, the project was over. But it was amazing that as my field assistant was trying to reset my shoulder, I was wincing in so much pain. And I would squint and close my eyes, and all I would see were narwhals and tusk in beautiful light. And I knew at that moment that it was safe to go home because we got the story.

GROSS: Wow. So were you in the water with the narwhals or photographing from the ice?

NICKLEN: You know, every - everything I do, I really - I try and see things from the sky. I try - and, you know, people say I've been somewhere. I'm like, oh, really? You know, for me, when I say I've been somewhere, I really mean I saw it from 2,000 feet up. It means I saw it from eye level. And it means I've seen it from, you know, anywhere from the surface to several hundred feet deep or a couple hundred feet deep.

And I love to do these cross-sections. And so, you know, when I was with the narwhals, I photographed them from the airplane. I stood next to them. And I was in the water a lot just waiting and waiting for these narwhals to show up.

GROSS: Were you worried about their 12-foot ivory tusks?

NICKLEN: No. It's funny. You know, I've never ever worried about the tusk at all. It's so funny because I'm so in love with what I do. And, you know, just to be able to see narwhals approaching me underwater. And you can hear them clicking. And they're echolocating (ph) you. And they're coming towards you to check you out. I mean, the last thought I think I'd ever have was like, wow, they all have you know 11-foot long tusks.

And - but you do see that narwhals are scarred up sometimes. Not much is known about their tusks. But, you know, they must do enough battle to create these scars. And so, you know, they cross tusks. They stab each other. They poke. And so, sure, that - I guess that crosses your mind. But it's not being impaled by - I'm not really scared of death. I just want my death to be cool. And I guess being speared by a narwhal would be a pretty cool way to go. So it's not a concern.

GROSS: Well, is this something you think about a lot - that you want your death to be cool?

NICKLEN: No, I just don't want it to be uncool. You know, I don't want to do something stupid and - and, you know, step out on a car in front of a bus in New York because I wasn't paying attention and get run over. That would not be a cool death. You know, if I'm out there pushing and trying to push the limits to come back with something amazing, to connect to the world to what I love, then sure.

It's - you know, but you can't - you know, as my friends at Geographic tell me all the time, you can't take pictures when you're dead. So we have too many stories to tell, and so it's important to try and stay alive for now.

GROSS: So I want to get back to those tusks for a second. What function do they serve? Are they a defense mechanism or like a really large toothpick with which to spear what they want to eat?

NICKLEN: You know, there are a whole bunch of theories that have come out. And it's actually a very heated, sensitive topic. If there was so much benefit to a tusk, then I think, you know, obviously females would have them as well. You know, they're just - they're a - they're a trait on males.

And I really believe that they're a sexual trait, just like in many other species. You know, when deer have these big antlers, and, you know, elephant males have these massive tasks. And, you know, these narwhals, these males - when you watch them out there, they're constantly rubbing each other with their tusks. They're tapping their tusks. They're waving them in the air. It's like they're measuring sort of who's got the biggest tusk. And it's quite - it's fascinating to watch them.

GROSS: So you mentioned that in looking for the narwhals, you fell through the ice. Would you describe what it's like to fall through Arctic ice?

NICKLEN: It's actually - you know, falling through Arctic ice is not a big deal. You know, it's - if you fall through lake ice, it's terrifying because you - you know, if you're out on thin lake ice and you break through, I'm so scared of lake ice because it shatters. It's brittle. It breaks. And, you know, every time you try and get back up, you're getting wetter. You're getting wet. You're getting heavier. And every time you throw your upper body on lake ice, you break through it. I've fallen through lake ice as well. And I - it's really, really awful.

And if - when you fall through sea ice, it's quite supple. It's porous. It's rough. It's - so, I mean, I wear a dry suit quite often. And when I'm running across the ice, I expect to fall. And you can be almost running - you know, Honeycomb cereal, where it's, you know, all the air pockets through it - you can walk across sea ice that is that rotten, that is that porous.

And sometimes I'll fall through, and you laugh, and you get up, and you keep going and you crawl back onto the ice. And it's not a big deal. But it is a big deal when you are - you know, if you're on a snowmobile and you go through. You know, now you're wet, and you're out on the ice. And it's - that's - that gets to be very dangerous. But it's - yeah, it's OK.

I mean, I've fallen through sea ice dozens of times. And - you know, but it's the time that I fell through and I dislocated my shoulder. And the ice - you know, when I was - as I was always falling through the ice, I was laughing to myself, like, here we go again. You know, we're about to get wet. And I was just wearing normal, you know, Gore-Tex clothing.

And as I was going through the ice, the ice that I was on broke into these two big chunks. And they were starting to roll inwards, like on a grinder. And I was starting to go in between the ice and down and under. And I wouldn't have come back from that. There's no way I could have pushed up through the ice, and nobody saw me go in.

And as I'm going through that ice, I reached up, and I grabbed a rope on my sled. I was just standing next to my qamutiik, which is a sled that you pull. And as I did that, it popped my shoulder out. And I'm just lying there, sort of just my nose and my mouth sort of above the water with this ice squeezing me.

And my shoulder dislocated, which I had never had happen before. So it actually hurt quite a bit and kind of takes your breath away for a moment. And then I realized that I was in a bit of a predicament. But luckily, you know, my team eventually saw me. An Inuit hunter saw me, and they all grabbed me and pulled me out, and then just to reset my shoulder, but - yeah.

GROSS: Did you get hypothermia from being in the cold water and not adequately suited for it?

NICKLEN: No, it wasn't - you know what - you know that you can last in water for, you know, a fairly long period of time, like, you know, 10, 15, maybe even 20 minutes. You know, and I've even seen Inuit in the water for, you know, over an hour. And I don't understand. They must have antifreeze in their blood. But they're amazingly - amazing when it comes to adapting to the cold.

But, you know, I probably could make 20 minutes. I was only in the water for maybe, you know, three, four minutes or something like that. It wasn't - it wasn't too bad.

GROSS: My guest is photographer Paul Nicklen. After a break, we'll talk about getting attacked by an elephant seal he was photographing underwater. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "CHILDREN'S SONGS: NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with photographer Paul Nicklen, who works in the Arctic and Antarctica photographing polar bears, penguins, sea animals and the ice and documenting the effects of climate change. Melting ice is altering the ecosystem in both polar regions.

Nicklen has done about 20 stories for National Geographic, co-founded the conservation group SeaLegacy and recently opened the Paul Nicklen Gallery in New York, which has a new exhibit called The Water's Edge.

So we've been talking about your photography in the Arctic. Let's switch to Antarctica, where you've also done a lot of photography. And among...

NICKLEN: Yes.

GROSS: ...The sea animals that you photographed there is the leopard seal. Would you describe the leopard seal?

NICKLEN: You know what? Leopard seals are fascinating to look at. They're 12 feet long. You know, it was a really big one, a thousand pounds. They have this serpentine-like body. They're very lean and slender. And they have these massive pectoral flippers that allow them to turn on a dime under water.

They have these big reptilian heads with these massive jaws and these sort of dark holes for eyes. Like, there's like - almost like there's this sinister look to them. But you just have to see one to really just sort of fall in love with them. They're just such characters.

GROSS: So you wanted to photograph them. And you got your chance when one started banging against your boat in a kind of threatening way. Would you describe the circumstance that led to you getting in the water?

NICKLEN: Yeah. I wanted to go to Antarctica and get to know as many leopard seals as I could, to give them a fair shake. I never really think animals are vicious or out to get humans, or - and so I worked with a friend of mine named Goran Ehlme from Sweden. People would say Goran (pronouncing with American accent). And I called him up.

And he'd been in the water with leopard seals a couple of times. And I said, what do you think? Are they vicious? And he said, no, no, they're fantastic animals but they're complex. You just have to really get to know them. And once you get to know them, it can be great. So he and I went off to Antarctica together on a small sailboat, crossed the 500-mile Drake Passage and arrived there.

And the first day we showed up on the peninsula, and we went out in the little Zodiac that was just 12 feet long. And this - right away, this leopard seal came up to us. And she was as long or longer than the boat. And he just said, that is a bloody big seal, yeah - just to quote him exactly. He just said, that's - you know, it's a huge seal.

And he said, this is good. The bigger they are, the more confident they are, the more they're going to interact with you. And so that big seal grabbed a penguin right away, came up underneath the hull of the boat and started to ram it against the bottom of the boat. And then she went away from the boat with this penguin. Almost knocked us over the edge of the boat, we had to sit down.

And I was like, this is my first encounter with a leopard seal. It was completely humbling. And then she goes about 10 feet away from the boat, and she grabs it by the neck and does this death shake, where they shake them so hard from side to side that they try and turn them inside out so the feathers come off their body and they can eat the meat. So the leopard seal does that.

So there's guts in the water. There's blood everywhere. There's, you know, bits of penguin. And this is all sort of in the first half an hour of me seeing a leopard seal. And Goran said to me, this is a great situation. It's time for you to get in the water, yeah? You know, with his sick - thick Swedish accent.

And at that point, I was just - I'm a pretty brave guy, and I always give animals the benefit of the doubt. But everything in my body was saying don't do it. Do not get in the water. And - and so I said to Goran, you know, hey, dude. It's just my first seal. Let's - let's do it tomorrow.

And he said - and he started to yell at me - he says, it's 10 in the morning. You've complained all the time. There's not enough budget and not enough time. You're - you know, scared of failing a story for National Geographic. He goes, I tell you now to shut up, and you get in the water, yeah?

And I just looked at this guy yelling at me, and I looked at this massive seal. And I'm like, he's right. You know, I've come here to photograph this seal and get to know it. Let's - no - this is no time to chicken out. And I put on my hood and my dry suit, sealed it up and put my fins on. And my mouth was, like, so dry, like parched dry mouth, put my snorkel in my mouth and slipped over the edge of the boat.

And things appear 30 percent larger underwater than they do above water. So however big she looked above water, she looked 30 percent larger under water. So she looked like the size of a beluga whale to me and this massive head. And she was huge. And she just dropped her penguin, and she came shooting over to me. And she opened up her mouth, which is - you know, her head's twice as big as a grizzly bear's.

And now I'm staring down her throat. Her canines are - two above my head and my camera, and two are below. And I'm staring down her throat. And luckily for me, every time I took a picture, my shutter went black.

So I was actually - it was really great shooting. And the more I shot, the less I could see. I made the mistake once of looking over my camera. When you're looking at something through a really wide-angle lens like a fish eye, they appear tiny. But when I looked over my camera, I realized truly how massive this animal was.

GROSS: Let me stop you right here. You have one photograph where it looks like the camera is nearly inside the mouth of this predator.

NICKLEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And the mouth was wide open. You can - like if - if this creature had tonsils, you'd be seeing it. And you see, like, the really many and sharp teeth that this leopard seal has. And you've written that you were, like, in and out of this leopard seal's mouth.

NICKLEN: Just my camera was in and out of the mouth. But, I mean, my eye is attached to the camera. So you know, if...

GROSS: Were you - was your camera in and out of the mouth because you wanted it there, or because the leopard seal wanted you in his mouth?

NICKLEN: Well, it - these - this was a female. So females are 25 to 30 percent bigger than males. So they have sexual dimorphism. And so this was a massive, massive female. They need that extra size to give birth to their pups on the ice and to survive. So this was, you know, the perfect large seal. And yeah, my camera was in her mouth.

And it was more - she was - when I do deal with polar bears or grizzly bears or any of these incredible top predators, I let them dictate the encounter. I don't want to harass them, push them, change their behavior. But this was all her. So all I did was lie there motionless. I didn't move. I let her check me out.

I let her go through this whole series of threat displays that she was doing to me to establish her dominance. Because you have to think that she is on this incredible penguin rookery, and there's, you know, thousands of penguins. And she's eating penguins all morning as they go to sea. And I just showed up and jumped into her territory, and she's chased every other leopard seal out of her territory.

And all of sudden, here is this cocky person who - maybe she hasn't even seen a human before. But she was going to figure out what I was doing in her territory, and she started off with this threat display that never felt terrifying. It was just - it was just incredible. It was just big and powerful. But it was never - it didn't look like it was ever going to bite me.

And another thing that's fascinating about leopard seals is when you look at these animals, when you look at elephant seals or fur seals, they're covered in scars and bite marks. And walrus are always hitting each other. You look at a leopard seal, they're perfectly clean. They have shiny, sleek, silver bodies. They have no scars on their bodies. They don't fight by biting each other all the time.

They fight through gesture and display and these threat displays. And so this is what this seal was doing. It was communicating with me. It wasn't coming up to bite me, but it was establishing its dominance, which I was happy to concede.

GROSS: And at some point, it started feeding you penguins. (Laughter) So...

NICKLEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...You have a great picture of this leopard seal with half a penguin in its mouth, like the bottom half, like the feet and the torso, coming at you to offer you a piece of penguin. It's such a crazy picture.

NICKLEN: Yeah, it was an incredible situation. And you know, this leopard seal stayed with me for four days straight. And every time I would show up on the water, she'd be there to greet me. She would follow me back to the sailboat at night. And once she established her dominance, she completely relaxed. And then she disappeared, and I thought the encounter was over.

And then she showed up a few minutes later with a penguin in her mouth. She had just caught a penguin chick. She was holding it by the feet. And the penguin's flapping, trying to get away from her. And she would just sort of line it up with me. And when it was lined up perfectly with me, she would let it go, and it would swim off. She caught it. She did this over and over.

And I realized at that moment that she was trying to feed me a live penguin. And I think she realized quickly in this encounter that I was not capable of catching a live, moving, swimming penguin. And so she brought me another penguin. She did all these different attempts to feed me live penguins. And at one point, I think she just got - there's a photo of her looking dejected, sort of disappointed in me that I'm sort of so useless that I'm unable to catch or accept one of her gifts.

So then she started to bring me dead penguins. And at one point, she would - I had five penguins floating around my head. And the picture you're talking about is further on in the encounter when she got so tired of me being unable to accept one of her penguins that she grabbed it, and she flipped it on top of my head. And that's where you have the feet sort of lying on my camera, the head sort of, you know - she kept throwing penguins on me. Then she'd poke me in the ribs.

She would - she'd come around beside me as the penguin's floating on top of my camera, and she'd sort of poke me with her whiskers in my cheek. You know, and I'm trying to shoot, but I'm laughing so hard in my mask that it's flooding my seal. So I'm trying to see through this mask that's filling up with seawater. And she's just determined, like, this OCD determination to get me to eat a penguin because if I accept the penguin, then she knows exactly why I'm there. Then she - I think she - but the more I rejected her penguin offerings, the more confused she became, the more OCD, the more determined she became to give me one of her offerings.

GROSS: So it sounds like you were kind of falling in love with this leopard seal. Do you feel like you learned something that other people didn't know about leopard seals?

NICKLEN: I think I learned - I mean I definitely fell in love with this seal. I mean I would - I mean it's embarrassing to admit this to you on - apparently you have a lot of followers - to admit this on your (laughter) radio show is, you know, I'd fall asleep at night with tears coming down my cheeks.

Just so - sorry, I'm just remembering it. But yeah, I was just so grateful, you know, just to spend your life out with animals and to be - to fighting to get yourself into a situation where you can try and get close, where you can try and, you know, just even get within a hundred meters of something. And all of sudden, here's a top predator. And not only you're getting to see it. It's interacting with you. It's trying to force-feed you penguins. It's trying to take care of you.

It's a very, very humbling, humbling thing. And so what you learn about these animals is how communicative they are, how intelligent they are, how social they are and sort of how forgiving they are, and it's - just to flop yourself into its world and for it to spend that much time and energy trying to figure out who you are and to interact with you.

And then the encounter went further from there. I think that's why I get emotional - is because we had such a connection. And then near the end of the project, she - I was in the water, and she came up to me. And she did this really aggressive threat display. She went upside down. She did this guttural sort of guh, guh, guh, guh, guh (ph). And I could feel it vibrate through my whole body. And I thought, OK, now she's upset. I've pushed her too far. She's going to attack.

What had happened was another big leopard seal had snuck up behind me. And she did that threat display, and she chased that leopard seal away from me. And that other leopard seal, too, had a penguin in its mouth. And she took that penguin away from that leopard seal and brought that penguin back and gave that to me as well. So yeah, it's - it was pretty powerful.

GROSS: Wow. If you're just joining us, my guest is conservation photographer Paul Nicklen. We're going to take a short break here and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with photographer Paul Nicklen, who photographs wildlife and the ice in the Arctic and Antarctica.

So here's a paradox. Like, you fell in love with this leopard seal who feeds on penguins and keeps giving you penguins as an offering. But you love penguins, too. And you have some beautiful pictures of penguins. My favorite is a picture of a mother and father penguin with their beaks touching, and the outline of their bodies kind of form, like, a heart. And in between them is, like, a baby penguin - like, their baby penguin. And it's such a really beautiful photo. So what's it like for you to fall in love with both the predator and prey?

NICKLEN: That's a great, great question, Terry. And you know, for me, it's - of course I love penguins. I love krill. I love sort of all levels of an ecosystem. But you know, for me, I step back and realize that, you know, for, you know, hundreds of millions of years, this ecosystem has finally evolved to arrive at this point where predators and prey can coexist. And you know, they all form this very complex ecosystem.

But it's designed for it. And it's - you know, do you feel sorry for the icefish or the krill when it gets eaten by the penguin, you know? And I try and - if it's a natural ecosystem functioning normally, then you try and remove yourself from it. And it's - but yeah, sure, I mean, it's easier to love a cute animal or charismatic animal or something as adorable as "Happy Feet" or a penguin. And you know, it's tough to watch them sort of dying.

And when you watch leopard seals, they play with their food. It's like this coldhearted, emotionless reaction that they have to their food. They don't mind torturing the food. I was swimming in the water with a cormorant. It's called a blue-eyed shag. And it's a beautiful, beautiful black and white cormorant. And the leopard seal swam up to me, grabbed the cormorant by its neck and broke it. And the cormorant could still swim, and the leopard seal was amused by this, you know, and just watched it for a little while. But then it got bored, and it left.

And I'm in the water with this bird that has a broken neck, and I thought, should I kill the bird? I mean this poor thing's going to suffer. It's never going to make it. And I thought, well, it's not my job to interact. But you know, I came back the next day, and I found the same poor bird swimming with its broken neck. And you know, if you allow your emotions into this, it's - it does get really, really tough, you know? But it's - I try and stay removed from natural ecosystems.

GROSS: So what are some of the effects of warming, you know, of climate change that you've seen in Antarctica?

NICKLEN: You know, the biggest change - when you look at the Arctic, you look at the effects that it's having on the sea ice. And obviously the sea ice is a great gauge. It's so important. It's diminishing. When you look at Antarctica, it's almost in the same timeframe that the Arctic has been melting or showing really big sort of signs, the effects of climate change in the Arctic. You look at Antarctica, and the time frame that the Arctic is - has been melting or showing really big sort of signs the effects of climate change on the - in the Arctic. You look at Antarctica, and the biggest indicators for me in Antarctica are the disappearance of ice shelves.

And when you think of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, for example, that's ice that's 800 feet thick. It's 300 miles long by, you know, a hundred miles deep. It's the size of California. When you look at the time lapses from space, that the entire Larsen B ice shelf is completely gone. And then now you talk about the next chunk of glacier ice that is breaking off the size of Delaware. And these indicators are where...

GROSS: And that's happening right now. I mean, that's expected to break off, like, really soon, like, in the next few weeks, right?

NICKLEN: Exactly, you know, imminently. And so when you think of the B-15 iceberg that was out there that was 50 miles long, these are all indicators of a change in climate. That's ice that's been there for tens of thousands of years. And now in the last 20 years, it's all breaking off and disappearing.

And you think, again, how important is ice for krill? You know, krill is the foundation species of Antarctica. Everything comes from krill. And the krill needs sea ice which is crucial to its life cycle. So it's all connected.

GROSS: Have you seen penguins who are dying because of the loss of sea ice?

NICKLEN: I'm seeing penguins die. This year, it was a really tragic year to go down and witness it. Normally, when you go down to Antarctica in February at the end of the season, there's still a lot of snow on the ground. And the penguins are, you know, are just getting ready to go to sea.

But what we witnessed this year was this is the most rainfall they've had. And all the snow was gone in these places which are normally covered in snow. And the penguins when they're in their very vulnerable downy phase, they've got this fluffy down that keeps them warm, and that's there until they get their adult feathers which allow them to repel water and go to sea.

And at that phase, they can't get wet but snow can be - is very dry. It's a safe environment for them. But when they get wet and it rains, you start to see a lot of dead penguins.

And another thing that we have to address in Antarctica with penguins is, you know, krill has become the new latest craze for humans. It's the new cool protein. It's the omega 3s that we like to eat. And to go down to Antarctica and see factory ships that are 800-feet long pulling out hundreds of millions of pounds of krill and shipping that off to market.

There's a huge biomass of krill on this Earth. But what's important is where they're taking the krill from. If they're taking the krill right close to critical feeding habitat of penguins, that's a big problem. And so, you know, seeing the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area created based on the efforts of many people and then to now be working towards a marine protected area around the Antarctic Peninsula, it's sort of the work that we do at SeaLegacy. It's the work that fuels us. And it's exciting. And it's urgent.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is conservation photographer Paul Nicklen. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOOP 2.4.3'S "ZODIAC DUST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is conservation photographer Paul Nicklen who specializes in photographing the polar regions. He's done about 20 stories for National Geographic. He co-founded the group SeaLegacy In April, he opened a gallery in Manhattan for fine art conservation photography. And the new exhibit, The Water's Edge, is time to coincide with this week's oceans conference at the U.N. And this Thursday is World Oceans Day.

So I want to ask you about another sea creature. And one of these creatures nearly killed you. And this is the elephant seal. And you were filming elephant seals underwater. And you ended up kind of in the mouth of one of them. Would you describe what happened?

NICKLEN: Yeah, sure. It was really, you know, a traumatic moment. And it was very much 100 percent my fault. And it's - when you watch elephant seals, they weigh up to eight or nine thousand pounds. They're 18-feet long. You know, they weigh more than an F-350 pickup truck. I mean, they're huge. And they've got really large teeth. And when it's time for the mating season, all they're doing is either breeding, or they're fighting.

And when they fight, they fight. They're willing to fight to the death. They - you can hear two elephants seal - imagine two 8-thousand-pound dominant bulls slapping their fatty chests together, you know, with such force. They rear up 10-feet high in the air. And they come down with such incredible force that you can hear it from a long ways away.

And then when you watch them in the surf zone, they'll - they would grab females who weigh - you know, a female's much smaller. You talk about sexual dimorphism. A female elephant seal is maybe 13 - 1,400 pounds. And they're just so, you know, randy that time of year. They just turn their brain off. And, you know, and they're just - they're looking to breed. And a big bull will have up to 300 females in his harem. And so he's chasing all the males away. He's grabbing females in the surf zone, chasing away subordinate males in the surf zone. And then, unfortunately, we we're watching them even drown females because they were so ready to breed that they were killing these poor females.

And it's just something just - I wasn't very smart. I made a really dumb decision. I saw this big elephant seal floating in the water. I thought he was just a subordinate male who was off to the side of the colony and was just sort of hanging out, cooling off. But what I didn't realize - it was the beach master. It was the guy who had 300 girlfriends. And I swam up to him in the water. And it was just a stupid decision. And right away, he came shooting over to me. And I tried to hide behind a rock.

He just wrapped his body around this rock. And the water was shallow. It was four feet deep. So I couldn't really - it was the point that he kept trying to come on top of me to crush me. And as he's swimming on top of me, the only way I could get out from underneath him is I would shove my camera into his mouth. He was trying to bite my head. And his head weighs, probably, you know, four or five, 600 pounds - the size of a grizzly bear. Just his whole head and neck region is that big of an animal. I would just shove my dome in his mouth. And as he would come down on me, and I'd push off him.

And then he kept trying to come on top of me again. And I knew if he got on top of me, that I would drown. And I would die. I was just, you know, in a mask and a snorkel. If I had been smart, I would have swam out into deeper water where he couldn't crush me. But, you know, he could push me underwater. But I'd be able to probably keep coming up for breath. And instead, I tried to get on the land, which is where all his girlfriends were. And he didn't like that. So every time I tried to stand up, he would rear up 10 feet in the air. And he'd throw his body at me. And I'd have to lunge out of the way. You know, once I bounced off his chest.

And finally, my assistant was down on the beach. And he heard me screaming. But it was funny. It was - it was almost calming because it was like - I was like - I've always been sort of curious how I'm going to die. And it was at that moment, I was like, so this is it. I finally - like, OK, I finally know. It's kind of a cool death. But, unfortunately, I was, you know, a dumb ass getting myself into the situation and never thought it through. And my assistant saw I was in trouble. And he came running down the beach and distracted the elephant seal for a second. I crawled up on the beach and just curled up in a fetal position had a little cry and got on with our day. But, you know, it's just a bad decision on my part.

GROSS: Did you get great pictures from that encounter?

NICKLEN: I got a couple of sort of strange, lucky snaps staring inside his sort of big cavernous mouth. Yeah (laughter). It just sort of went off accidentally a couple of times. Got a couple shots.

GROSS: Did that change your approach to working underwater at all?

NICKLEN: Not really. I mean, this is - maybe doesn't make me sound too bright. But I mean, I got in the water with other elephant seal males - again, that project. But I would really - started to - I don't think anybody has ever been in the water with big breeding elephant seal bulls before. And, you know, the problem with my work is almost everything I do when it comes to working with these big predators, you're sort of innate fear mechanisms are telling you not to do it.

So you're always ignoring your gut. And when you ignore your gut all the time, at some point, you don't know where that benchmark is anymore. You don't know. You're always stepping into this gray area. And you're stepping over the line. And so now I've learned to just - really, when my guts really screaming at me to slow down and be smart, I start to back up a little bit and just spend more quality time analyzing, thinking, watching and then moving on with it if it seems like the right decision.

GROSS: Well, that's an interesting paradox that you just mentioned. I mean, you're in the water with predators, so your gut would be telling you, don't do that. But at the same time, that's your work to do that. But if you turn off your gut, you will not pick up on signals that you really should be picking up on - you know, really dangerous possibilities.

NICKLEN: I think I get so caught up in how important these stories are and how, you know, my images are going to have that three-dimensional feel to them to really bring people into the issues I care about. And I think I just get so focused sometimes on getting those images. You know, the biggest thing, I guess, that I'm worried about and I'm also very proud of is I've never had to kill an animal or hurt an animal because of my photography.

So I - you know, I want to get close. But I also never want to harass an animal. I don't want to change an animal's behavior. I want animals to behave naturally. But at the same time, in order to get great images, I need to be close. So it's - yeah, it's a bit of a - it's a challenging situation.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for going to the places that most of us will never be able to get to and bringing back images from there. Thank you for your work.

NICKLEN: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this chance to talk with you.

GROSS: Paul Nicklen is the co-founder of SeaLegacy. His Manhattan gallery, the Paul Nicklen Gallery, has a new exhibit called, The Water's Edge. It's time to coincide with this week's oceans conference at the U.N. Thursday is World Oceans Day. You can see a slideshow of Nicklen's photographs on our website.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

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GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) This is America. Here, the Righteous have no reason to fear.

GROSS: My guest will be Giancarlo Esposito, who played Gus Fring on "Breaking Bad" and is back in that role on "Better Call Saul." We'll talk about those shows and about his life. He's the son of an Italian stagehand father and an African-American opera singer mother. Esposito started performing as a child. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

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