A Q&A with National Geographic's only Canadian photojournalist Paul Nicklen

On his northern roots, climate change and the power of hope

Emperor Penguins shot from the Mario Zuchelli Base, Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Photo by Paul Nicklen)

Award-winning photographer Paul Nicklen, the only Canadian on National Geographic magazine’s photojournalist roster, was born on a farm outside Tisdale, Sask., and now lives on Vancouver Island. But he spent 42 of his 45 years living in Canada’s three northern territories, and it was there, particularly during three boyhood years in the tiny Baffin Island community of Kimmirut (pop. 500), that Nicklen became an artist and a polar obsessive. After beginning his career as a marine biologist with the Canadian government, Nicklen soon moved into full-time photography, in both the Arctic and Antarctica, “to bridge that gap between the important science that we were doing on climate change, polar bears and sea ice,” and the millions of people who never heard of it. Nicklen now plans a “massive donor-funded photo book” to give to influential decision-makers around the world, “to get people to wake up to the disappearing polar ecosystems.” He spoke with Senior Writer Brian Bethune.

Q: Your earliest memories must be of the Arctic.

A: Yeah, we moved to Frobisher Bay [now Iqaluit] on Baffin Island when I was four. My dad was a mechanic, my mom was a teacher, and they just went up there for some adventure. I just moved to Vancouver Island, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m travelling 10 months a year. I feel like I have a home but I’m never in it. It’s pure storage space.

Q: So Iqaluit was the root of your polar interest?

A: More Lake Harbour [now Kimmirut], which is right after that. We lived there for three years in the late ’70s, and that was the most influential, because we didn’t have radio, TV, anything, you know, so everything we did was outside. That’s definitely the foundation of my passion for the polar regions.

Q: Do you ever go back to Kimmirut?

A: Probably 2003 was the last time I was back, but I work around Baffin Island all the time, I’m shooting there almost every year.

Q: Can you really see a difference between your childhood home and now, the climate change?

A: As far as ice, or…?

Q: In any way, actually.

A: Absolutely. I mean, especially with the modern amenities and kids inside instead of outside. The Inuit elders would give us chunks of soapstone and we could carve or we would sit and draw and we would build sleds and pull those around, or we’d build motorboats, or I’d be in the garage with my dad working on a snowmobile. Now, when you have a free moment you’re on Xbox or you’re watching TV or you’re chatting with friends on the phone. The influence for myself within that culture was twofold—to be exposed to the elements all of the time, becoming very comfortable in the polar regions, and learning patience. I would crawl up behind town in Kimmirut and spend the whole day, at minus 10, just sitting there watching clouds form above the sea ice. With a 40-foot tide you’d see the ice coming up like an elevator and then falling 40 feet again, all these beautiful visuals. Then there was the constant carving and just being surrounded by an incredibly stunning visual landscape. It was like being immersed inside a three-dimensional painting all day long, with the light, especially the winter light, the subtle hues across the ice, and the aurora borealis dancing across the sky. You get a chance to soak that all in when you’re outside all the time.

Q: You make it sound like I should move there.

A: Pretty much.

Q: Those are cultural differences. Can see the physical differences, too, in the ice and everything else from when you were a child?

A: Yeah, everywhere. I’ve travelled all across the Arctic, Canada, Russia, Norway, I’ve been through the Northwest Passage, and you think that just 150 years ago Franklin and his team were getting smashed by ice, but now people go through in their little plastic sailboats. The Inuit are all complaining that the ice isn’t breaking up consistently like it used to. It would break up every spring in predictable places, where they knew the cracks would form, where the seals were going to be, where the whales were going to come in, where they could get food. Now they just don’t know. Ice melts from underneath, you know, mainly. People think it melts from the top but it doesn’t, it melts from the bottom side up, and we’re not seeing multi-year ice anymore. It’s all annual ice, which is not nearly as healthy and strong, so it can’t support the ecosystem that multi-year ice does. Go into Fox Basin, Baffin Island, which used to be just chock full of multi-year ice where the walrus could rest all summer. Now you don’t know where the walrus are. In Churchill, Man., where there’s a heavily studied population of bears, the ice is melting much earlier every spring. Just from the time I started working there in the ’90s, it’s already three weeks later with the bears, when they go onto the ice. Change is happening everywhere.

Q: Do you try to maintain dispassionate observation, or does this leave you depressed? Is there any positive change happening?

A: The only emotion that’s more powerful than fear is hope, and I just keep trying to share that message of hope. For sure it’s depressing at times: we are going to lose vast numbers of polar bears, which is the most charismatic species, but we’re also going to see effects among narwhals and everything from Arctic cod and seals to belugas and bowhead whales. They’re all tied, this whole ecosystem is tied, to healthy ice, and it’s going to be catastrophic. I don’t know what else I can do besides trying to get out there. We’ve just launched an organization called to keep driving home this message of hope. Not everyone’s going to get to see these places, not everyone’s going to get to see the ocean, so it’s our job to bring the ocean to everyone, because people look at this perfect thin blue line and they think the ocean is healthy. If you just take your mask and dip it two inches below the surface you will see a changing ecosystem, changing very quickly. So we feel this incredible urgency to share our stories and share the messages. I can’t imagine living any other life.

Q: Polar bears, penguins and narwhals: your favourites?

A: Yeah, all my favourites. Those animals all are indicators of their various ecosystems, and you go down to the Antarctica and, you know, you’re swimming with emperor penguins, under the ice, and you see that through thousands of years they’ve evolved this physiological adaptation where they can release millions of microbubbles from their feathers to accelerate, which lubricate their feathers against the water, allows them to double and triple their speeds, yet the one thing they don’t have any control over is the loss of ice. You get these massive icebergs peeling off from the shelf around Antarctica, they block entire colonies; entire colonies can collapse. It has happened. You know, icebergs that are 100 km wide, just huge chunks of ice are disappearing. If people are going to wait for sea levels to rise to where they’re affecting people in New York then we’re 100 years too late, you know? So it’s trying to get people to be preventive.

Q: You began as a marine biologist for the federal government?

A: My degree was in marine biology and then I became a biologist working on things like polar bears and lynx and wolves and wolverines and stuff like that. I just felt very, very frustrated. It was a really cool job—at the time it was a dream job—but you realized how hard you worked to share your data sets and in the end it ends up in some stuffy scientific paper that really doesn’t effect any change. So I thought if I can bridge that gap between that important science that we were doing—like climate change, polar bears, sea ice—and then reach out to 40 million people like the readers of National Geographic, and now with multimedia an even a bigger audience, then now I’m being effective in my job.

Q: When did you first go south, to the other pole?

A: First time was recently, it was 2004, 2005.

Q: Different creatures live at the two poles. Did it affect you differently as an artist?

A: It does. In the Arctic everything is hunted, everything is scared, everything has its flight response, so you might wait three weeks to get a great shot of a polar bear—or, you know, years to get a shot of a polar bear. You’re always trying to work out the different stealth scenarios. It took me eight years before I could even get close to narwhals. I had to buy that ultralight airplane on floats and live on the sea ice for three months, blew an engine, crashed it, you know, fixed it, built it, flew back out into the pack ice, all to have two good hours of shooting, and then that night I fell through the ice, dislocated my shoulder and that shoot was over. Contrast that with Antarctica, where nothing is scared. I mean, you can walk up and animals are trying to crawl on top of you. It’s a different problem, where you have elephant seals that are 18 days old and 400 lb. and they’re trying to crawl on top of you because they miss their mom. They’re just totally different ecosystems, but the underlying theme is that they both rely on healthy ice and normal temperatures and they’re both being affected severely in their own different ways by warming temperatures.

Q: What are you doing in Hawaii? Is that like some sort of hot punishment place for you?

A: It almost feels like that! It’s an assignment that was given to me by Geographic. I didn’t want it but now that we’re here I’m actually kind of enjoying it, you know? But yeah, I think the only skill I really have is I’m better at freezing than anybody else in the photography world. To be here does feel like punishment, but we’re spending almost all our time in the water. I got to swim with a 14-foot tiger shark two days ago, which was an exceptionally wonderful experience. Yeah, we’re having fun.

Q: And the spirit bears, I guess they connect to the Arctic in the sense of a disappearing, threatened habitat.

A: Yeah, it was another different story. I met a First Nation fellow by the name of Marvin Robinson, really fantastic guy, and he told me they were prepping their boats—their fishing boats, their seiners—that they were going to ram the oil tankers when they came through shipping dirty bitumen to China to get processed. I said, “Well, let’s hold on, there, tiger. You know, we can… let’s be preventative. If you’re doing that, then it’s too late. What story can we do?” Similar to using a polar bear for ice, I thought I could use the spirit bear to represent the temperate rainforest’s coastal ecosystem. It was a very long, difficult assignment, and we had four or five good days of shooting in three months over two seasons. Sitting in the rain all day was a challenge. But in the end we had one great bear that came down and gave us everything we needed in a two-day period.

Q: So your preparations, even more than other people’s, have to be extensive and dead serious. You could get killed doing this stuff.

A: Yeah, but we just did a big cave-diving assignment in Mexico, and the most dangerous part of those dives every day was driving to the dive site. People live more dangerous lives than I do every day, but you become so complacent and used to it that you don’t even analyze it. To swim with a tiger shark is actually fairly safe, you know, and to be in the forest alone with a spirit bear that’s three feet away is actually very safe.

Q: I was thinking of the cold in the places you normally are.

A: Cold is a real risk. Not the cold of being outside—anybody can survive that with basic equipment nowadays—but pushing yourself underwater to the point that you’re near hypothermia, pushing yourself beyond the safety zone. The only risk is my bad decision-making sometimes.

Q: You sound as though the narwhal expedition was particularly hair-raising, but are a lot of things that close?

A: Yeah. I’ve crashed two airplanes, I’ve ended up upside down in a lake crashing an ultralight airplane on a bad landing. I’ve run out of air under the ice twice now. Both times I didn’t think I was going to make it. It’s never an animal’s fault, it’s never the bear’s fault—it’s me. So I jump in the water with a leopard seal, or to be really close to a polar bear trying to get these images. Your gut is telling you not to do it, and most people listen to their gut and say, okay, I’m trying to jump in the water and swim with a thousand-pound seal that’s going to pretend to kill you for the first few minutes and you have to just get that animal to calm down. The psychology of that is you learn to ignore your gut, and when you ignore your gut every time you sometimes lose touch with reality, you know, what’s common sense. That’s the only part that scares me right now about what I do.

Q: You are considering retirement, then, in some dim future?

A: Yeah, in about 20 years! We’re about to get busier and go bigger and go harder. I’ll keep working for National Geographic but we’re going to really launch the SeaLegacy initiative because the urgency is… you know, we’ve gotta be working now.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.