Paul Nicklen: Tales of ice-bound wonderlands
March 2, 2011
Diving under the Antarctic ice to get close to the much-feared leopard seal, photographer Paul Nicklen found an extraordinary new friend. Share his hilarious, passionate stories of the polar wonderlands, illustrated by glorious images of the animals who live on and under the ice.
- Polar photographer
Paul Nicklen photographs the creatures of the Arctic and Antarctic, generating global awareness about wildlife in these isolated and endangered environments. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
My journey to become a polar specialist,
photographing, specializing in the polar regions,
began when I was four years old,
when my family moved from Southern Canada
to Northern Baffin Island, up by Greenland.
There we lived with the Inuit
in the tiny Inuit community of 200 Inuit people,
where [we] were one of three non-Inuit families.
And in this community, we didn't have a television;
we didn't have computers, obviously, radio.
We didn't even have a telephone.
All of my time was spent outside
with the Inuit, playing.
The snow and the ice were my sandbox,
and the Inuit were my teachers.
And that's where I became
truly obsessed with this polar realm.
And I knew someday that I was going to do something
that had to do with trying to share news about it
and protect it.
I'd like to share with you, for just two minutes only,
some images, a cross-section of my work,
to the beautiful music by Brandi Carlile, "Have You Ever."
I don't know why National Geographic has done this, they've never done this before,
but they're allowing me to show you a few images
from a coverage that I've just completed that is not published yet.
National Geographic doesn't do this,
so I'm very excited to be able to share this with you.
And what these images are --
you'll see them at the start of the slide show -- there's only about four images --
but it's of a little bear that lives in the Great Bear Rainforest.
It's pure white, but it's not a polar bear.
It's a spirit bear, or a Kermode bear.
There are only 200 of these bears left.
They're more rare than the panda bear.
I sat there on the river for two months without seeing one.
I thought, my career's over.
I proposed this stupid story to National Geographic.
What in the heck was I thinking?
So I had two months to sit there
and figure out different ways of what I was going to do in my next life,
after I was a photographer, because they were going to fire me.
Because National Geographic is a magazine; they remind us all the time:
they publish pictures, not excuses.
And after two months of sitting there --
one day, thinking that it was all over,
this incredible big white male came down,
right beside me, three feet away from me,
and he went down and grabbed a fish and went off in the forest and ate it.
And then I spent the entire day living my childhood dream
of walking around with this bear through the forest.
He went through this old-growth forest
and sat up beside this 400-year-old culturally modified tree and went to sleep.
And I actually got to sleep within three feet of him,
just in the forest, and photograph him.
So I'm very excited to be able to show you those images
and a cross-section of my work that I've done on the polar regions.
Brandi Carlile: ♫ Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods? ♫
♫ And everything there feels just as it should ♫
♫ You're part of the life there ♫
♫ You're part of something good ♫
♫ If you've ever wandered lonely through the woods ♫
♫ Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh ♫
♫ If you've ever wandered lonely through the woods ♫
♫ Have you ever stared into a starry sky? ♫
♫ Lying on your back, you're asking why ♫
♫ What's the purpose? ♫
♫ I wonder, who am I? ♫
♫ If you've ever stared into a starry sky ♫
♫ Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh ♫
♫ Aah, ah, aah ♫
♫ Ah, oh, oh, ah, ah, oh, oh ♫
♫ Have you ever stared into a starry sky? ♫
♫ Have you ever been out walking in the snow? ♫
♫ Tried to get back where you were before ♫
♫ You always end up ♫
♫ Not knowing where to go ♫
♫ If you've ever been out walking in the snow ♫
♫ Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh ♫
♫ Aah, ah, aah, ah, aah ♫
♫ Ah, ah, oh, ah, ah, oh, ah ♫
♫ Oh, ah, ah, ah ♫
♫ Ah, ah, oh, ah, ah, oh, oh ♫
♫ If you'd ever been out walking you would know ♫
Paul Nicklen: Thank you very much. The show's not over.
My clock is ticking. Okay, let's stop.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
We're inundated with news all the time
that the sea ice is disappearing
and it's at its lowest level.
And in fact, scientists were originally saying
sea ice is going to disappear in the next hundred years, then they said 50 years.
Now they're saying the sea ice in the Arctic,
the summertime extent is going to be gone in the next four to 10 years.
And what does that mean?
After a while of reading this in the news, it just becomes news.
You glaze over with it.
And what I'm trying to do with my work is put faces to this.
And I want people to understand and get the concept
that, if we lose ice,
we stand to lose an entire ecosystem.
Projections are that we could lose polar bears; they could become extinct
in the next 50 to 100 years.
And there's no better, sexier,
more beautiful, charismatic megafauna species
for me to hang my campaign on.
Polar bears are amazing hunters.
This was a bear I sat with for a while on the shores.
There was no ice around.
But this glacier caved into the water and a seal got on it.
And this bear swam out to that seal --
800 lb. bearded seal --
grabbed it, swam back and ate it.
And he was so full, he was so happy and so fat eating this seal,
that, as I approached him --
about 20 feet away -- to get this picture,
his only defense was to keep eating more seal.
And as he ate, he was so full --
he probably had about 200 lbs of meat in his belly --
and as he ate inside one side of his mouth,
he was regurgitating out the other side of his mouth.
So as long as these bears have any bit of ice they will survive,
but it's the ice that's disappearing.
We're finding more and more dead bears in the Arctic.
When I worked on polar bears as a biologist 20 years ago,
we never found dead bears.
And in the last four or five years,
we're finding dead bears popping up all over the place.
We're seeing them in the Beaufort Sea,
floating in the open ocean where the ice has melted out.
I found a couple in Norway last year. We're seeing them on the ice.
These bears are already showing signs
of the stress of disappearing ice.
Here's a mother and her two year-old cub
were traveling on a ship a hundred miles offshore in the middle of nowhere,
and they're riding on this big piece of glacier ice,
which is great for them; they're safe at this point.
They're not going to die of hypothermia.
They're going to get to land.
But unfortunately, 95 percent of the glaciers in the Arctic
are also receding right now
to the point that the ice is ending up on land
and not injecting any ice back into the ecosystem.
These ringed seals, these are the "fatsicles" of the Arctic.
These little, fat dumplings,
150-pound bundles of blubber
are the mainstay of the polar bear.
And they're not like the harbor seals that you have here.
These ringed seals also live out their entire life cycle
associated and connected to sea ice.
They give birth inside the ice,
and they feed on the Arctic cod that live under the ice.
And here's a picture of sick ice.
This is a piece of multi-year ice that's 12 years old.
And what scientists didn't predict is that, as this ice melts,
these big pockets of black water are forming
and they're grabbing the sun's energy
and accelerating the melting process.
And here we are diving in the Beaufort Sea.
The visibility's 600 ft.; we're on our safety lines;
the ice is moving all over the place.
I wish I could spend half an hour telling you
about how we almost died on this dive.
But what's important in this picture is that you have a piece of multi-year ice,
that big chunk of ice up in the corner.
In that one single piece of ice,
you have 300 species of microorganisms.
And in the spring, when the sun returns to the ice,
it forms the phytoplankton, grows under that ice,
and then you get bigger sheets of seaweed,
and then you get the zoo plankton feeding on all that life.
So really what the ice does
is it acts like a garden.
It acts like the soil in a garden. It's an inverted garden.
Losing that ice is like losing the soil in a garden.
Here's me in my office.
I hope you appreciate yours.
This is after an hour under the ice.
I can't feel my lips; my face is frozen;
I can't feel my hands; I can't feel my feet.
And I've come up, and all I wanted to do was get out of the water.
After an hour in these conditions,
it's so extreme that, when I go down,
almost every dive I vomit into my regulator
because my body can't deal with the stress of the cold on my head.
And so I'm just so happy that the dive is over.
I get to hand my camera to my assistant,
and I'm looking up at him, and I'm going, "Woo. Woo. Woo."
Which means, "Take my camera."
And he thinks I'm saying, "Take my picture."
So we had this little communication breakdown.
But it's worth it.
I'm going to show you pictures of beluga whales, bowhead whales,
and narwhals, and polar bears, and leopard seals today,
but this picture right here means more to me than any other I've ever made.
I dropped down in this ice hole, just through that hole that you just saw,
and I looked up under the underside of the ice,
and I was dizzy; I thought I had vertigo.
I got very nervous -- no rope, no safety line,
the whole world is moving around me --
and I thought, "I'm in trouble."
But what happened is that the entire underside
was full of these billions of amphipods and copepods
moving around and feeding on the underside of the ice,
giving birth and living out their entire life cycle.
This is the foundation of the whole food chain in the Arctic, right here.
And when you have low productivity in this, in ice,
the productivity in copepods go down.
This is a bowhead whale.
Supposedly, science is stating
that it could be the oldest living animal on earth right now.
This very whale right here could be over 250 years old.
This whale could have been born
around the start of the Industrial Revolution.
It could have survived 150 years of whaling.
And now its biggest threat is the disappearance of ice in the North
because of the lives that we're leading in the South.
Narwhals, these majestic narwhals
with their eight-foot long ivory tusks, don't have to be here;
they could be out on the open water.
But they're forcing themselves to come up in these tiny little ice holes
where they can breathe, catch a breath,
because right under that ice are all the swarms of cod.
And the cod are there
because they are feeding on all the copepods and amphipods.
Alright, my favorite part.
When I'm on my deathbed,
I'm going to remember one story more than any other.
Even though that spirit bear moment was powerful,
I don't think I'll ever have another experience
like I did with these leopard seals.
Leopard seals, since the time of Shackleton, have had a bad reputation.
They've got that wryly smile on their mouth.
They've got those black sinister eyes
and those spots on their body.
They look positively prehistoric and a bit scary.
And tragically in ,
a scientist was taken down and drowned,
and she was being consumed by a leopard seal.
And people were like, "We knew they were vicious. We knew they were."
And so people love to form their opinions.
And that's when I got a story idea:
I want to go to Antarctica,
get in the water with as many leopard seals as I possibly can
and give them a fair shake --
find out if they really are these vicious animals, or if they're misunderstood.
So this is that story.
Oh, and they also happen to eat happy feet.
As a species, as humans, we like to say penguins are really cute,
therefore, leopard seals eat them, so leopard seals are ugly and bad.
It doesn't work that way.
The penguin doesn't know it's cute,
and the leopard seal doesn't know it's kind of big and monstrous.
This is just the food chain unfolding.
They're also big.
They're not these little harbor seals.
They are 12 ft. long, a thousand pounds.
And they're also curiously aggressive.
You get 12 tourists packed into a Zodiac,
floating in these icy waters,
and a leopard seal comes up and bites the pontoon.
The boat starts to sink, they race back to the ship
and get to go home and tell the stories of how they got attacked.
All the leopard seal was doing --
it's just biting a balloon.
It just sees this big balloon in the ocean -- it doesn't have hands --
it's going to take a little bite, the boat pops, and off they go.
So after five days of crossing the Drake Passage --
isn't that beautiful.
After five days of crossing the Drake Passage,
we have finally arrived at Antarctica.
I'm with my Swedish assistant and guide.
His name is Goran Ehlme from Sweden -- Goran.
And he has a lot of experience with leopard seals. I have never seen one.
So we come around the cove in our little Zodiac boat,
and there's this monstrous leopard seal.
And even in his voice, he goes, "That's a bloody big seal, ya."
And this seal is taking this penguin by the head,
and it's flipping it back and forth.
And what it's trying to do is turn that penguin inside-out,
so it can eat the meat off the bones,
and then it goes off and gets another one.
And so this leopard seal grabbed another penguin,
came under the boat, the Zodiac,
starting hitting the hull of the boat.
And we're trying to not fall in the water.
And we sit down, and that's when Goran said to me,
"This is a good seal, ya.
It's time for you to get in the water."
And I looked at Goran, and I said to him, "Forget that."
But I think I probably used a different word starting with the letter F.
But he was right.
He scolded me out, and said, "This is why we're here.
And you purposed this stupid story to National Geographic.
And now you've got to deliver.
And you can't publish excuses."
So I had such dry mouth --
probably not as bad as now --
but I had such, such dry mouth.
And my legs were just trembling. I couldn't feel my legs.
I put my flippers on. I could barely part my lips.
I put my snorkel in my mouth,
and I rolled over the side of the Zodiac into the water.
And this was the first thing she did.
She came racing up to me, engulfed my whole camera --
and her teeth are up here and down here --
but Goran, before I had gotten in the water, had given me amazing advice.
He said, "If you get scared, you close your eyes, ya, and she'll go away."
So that's all I had to work with at that point.
But I just started to shoot these pictures.
So she did this threat display for a few minutes,
and then the most amazing thing happened -- she totally relaxed.
She went off, she got a penguin.
She stopped about 10 feet away from me,
and she sat there with this penguin, the penguin's flapping, and she let's it go.
The penguin swims toward me, takes off.
She grabs another one. She does this over and over.
And it dawned on me that she's trying to feed me a penguin.
Why else would she release these penguins at me?
And after she did this four or five times,
she swam by me with this dejected look on her face.
You don't want to be too anthropomorphic, but I swear that she looked at me
like, "This useless predator's going to starve in my ocean."
So realizing I couldn't catch swimming penguins,
she'd get these other penguins and bring them slowly towards me,
bobbing like this, and she'd let them go.
This didn't work.
I was laughing so hard and so emotional
that my mask was flooding, because I was crying underwater,
just because it was so amazing.
And so that didn't work.
So then she'd get another penguin and try this ballet-like sexy display
sliding down this iceberg like this. (Laughter)
And she would sort of bring them over to me and offer it to me.
This went on for four days.
This just didn't happen a couple of times.
And then so she realized I couldn't catch live ones,
so she brought me dead penguins.
Now I've got four or five penguins floating around my head,
and I'm just sitting there shooting away.
And she would often stop and have this dejected look on her face
like, "Are you for real?"
Because she can't believe I can't eat this penguin.
Because in her world, you're either breeding or you're eating --
and I'm not breeding, so ...
And then that wasn't enough; she started to flip penguins onto my head.
She was trying to force-feed me. She's pushing me around.
She's trying to force-feed my camera,
which is every photographer's dream.
And she would get frustrated; she'd blow bubbles in my face.
She would, I think, let me know that I was going to starve.
But yet she didn't stop.
She would not stop trying to feed me penguins.
And on the last day with this female
where I thought I had pushed her too far,
I got nervous because she came up to me,
she rolled over on her back,
and she did this deep, guttural jackhammer sound, this gokgokgokgok.
And I thought, she's about to bite.
She's about to let me know she's too frustrated with me.
What had happened was another seal had snuck in behind me,
and she did that to threat display.
She chased that big seal away, went and got its penguin
and brought it to me.
That wasn't the only seal I got in the water with.
I got in the water with 30 other leopard seals,
and I never once had a scary encounter.
They are the most remarkable animals I've ever worked with,
and the same with polar bears.
And just like the polar bears,
these animals depend on an icy environment.
I get emotional. Sorry.
It's a story that lives deep in my heart,
and I'm proud to share this with you.
And I'm so passionate about it.
Anybody want to come with me to Antarctica or the Arctic, I'll take you; let's go.
We've got to get the story out now. Thank you very much.
Thank you. Thanks very much.
- Polar photographer
Paul Nicklen photographs the creatures of the Arctic and Antarctic, generating global awareness about wildlife in these isolated and endangered environments.Why you should listen
Paul Nicklen grew up one of only a few non-Inuit in an Inuit settlement on Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada -- a childhood that taught him the patience, stamina and respect for nature required for his beat in the frigid climes of Earth’s polar regions. Best known for his vivid and intimate wildlife photos for National Geographic, Nicklen started out a biologist in the Northwest Territories, gathering data on such species as lynx, grizzlies, and polar bears. Today he bridges the gap between scientific research and the public, showing how fragile and fast-changing habitats are profoundly affecting wildlife.
During the course of his workday Nicklen regularly comes face-to-face with fantastic creatures: narwhals, Arctic foxes, elephant seals, and more. His most amazing experience? An underwater encounter with a leopard seal who for four days tried to feed him penguins through the "mouth" of his lens.
The original video is available on TED.com