By Steven Mihailovich
Although “Among Giants” is the title of the 192-page book replete with photos and tales of the world’s greatest creatures – whales – it is also an apt label for the book’s author, Charles “Flip” Nicklin, among the world’s giants in nature photography. Currently in his fourth decade as a top whale and dolphin photographer for National Geographic, Nicklin has been touring the country to promote his book since its release in April, and an exhibition of his exceptional photos can be seen at the San Diego Natural History Museum until Dec. 31.
While “Among Giants: A Life with Whales” is the 10th book featuring Nicklin’s work, the book is his most personal to date, with reflections on a career that began when his father Chuck opened a diving store in La Jolla in 1959 and rode a whale in 1963 in a photo that captured the country’s imagination.
“At first, I was trying to tell about the changing view on whales over time,” said the 63-year-old Nicklin. “Everything from the myth and magic of whales to the biological study. But it became more of a biography and memoir. I wanted to get this out while my mother and father were still around and tell the bigger part of the family story.”
Nicklin’s family story has a life of its own, one that parallels the story of San Diego itself. According to the San Diego History Center, Nicklin’s great-great grandfather was Philip Crosthwaite, a local businessman, civic leader and seafarer who fought in the Battle of San Pasqual in 1846. One of Nicklin’s ancestors was a soldier who accompanied Father Junipero Serra during his excursions into California.
“I’m eighth generation (in San Diego),” Nicklin said. “We have a saying in the family — ‘We didn’t come to the U.S. The U.S. came to us.’ ”
Some of the family stories, such as Crosthwaite’s observations that the whales that filled San Diego Bay in the 1840s had disappeared by the 1880s, can be found in the book, Nicklin said. Nicklin gave a presentation titled, “The History of Whaling in San Diego,” and signed books at the San Diego History Center on Oct. 4, drawing 100 people.
“For a book signing, that was a very highly attended program for us,” said Gabe Selak, public programs manager for the history center. “(Nicklin) is a fascinating person and a dynamic storyteller. He knows how to weave words and emotions so that you feel you’re part of the story. It was a complete immersive experience.”
Despite the appeal of Nicklin’s family story, the book focuses on the life of whales and Nicklin’s mesmerizing interactions among them through 18 specific National Geographic projects out of the many in his career, Nicklin said.
Nicklin’s work with whales spans the corresponding rise in the cultural, scientific and social interest in the ocean’s behemoths. For example, Nicklin said there were only 2,000 humpback whales in existence in 1979, when he had just begun his career. The species has since recovered to about 20,000 today, but Nicklin argues that the biggest test to whales’ survival lies ahead.
“Will we appreciate those animals when they’re successful as when they were endangered?” Nicklin said. “The book is not a sermon to make people feel bad. Most of the book is an exciting adventure tale.
“But whales are a great way to focus on bigger issues. We don’t have a choice anymore. If you want to have whales around, there are some tough questions to be asked and answered. You can’t save whales without saving krill (a major food source for whales) and everything else. You can’t just save animals that are cute, eat animals that are tasty, and kill animals that are ugly and expect a functioning system.”
What Nicklin won’t say is that his photographs, as well as his recordings of whale songs, had an indelible impact on the effort to save whales and marine life by bringing their beauty to the public’s awareness. That fact is left to the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), which will recognize Nicklin as its Outstanding Photographer of the Year this March.
“Flip is probably the world’s foremost whale photographer,” stated NANPA president Bill Plunkett by e-mail. “His work to help save these majestic creatures is so important that NANPA felt it appropriate to name him the Outstanding Photographer of the Year for 2012. We are all in Flip’s debt for making it possible for all of us to enjoy and marvel at the wonders of his subjects.”
Although Nicklin acknowledges the difficulty of his work, requiring 100 hours in the water to get four good hours with whales, he views himself merely as a journalist who accompanied the whale scientists and researchers that deserve the lion’s share of the credit for bringing the whale to prominence.
“I was just being their eyes in the water,” Nicklin said. “You’ve got to tell a story. If the photo doesn’t capture everything, you still have to have a story. One researcher said that in the last 25 years, it’s like we discovered a new continent. It’s up to the next generation to explore it. This book is to inspire the next generation.”
Nicklin splits his time between Juneau, Alaska, “a very good place for 5’4” redheads,” where he met his wife, and Maui, Hawaii, where he helped found the Whale Trust in 2001 to spur and support ongoing whale and marine life research.
Out of the life of whales, the life of his family history and the life of his art, Nicklin created a life of his own.
“Now it’s about being a conduit for young people, to be a mentor,” Nicklin said. “But I doubt they’re going to have any more fun that I did ... When you go out (into the field), you know what you’re doing, you have a hypothesis, but it takes years to prove it. That was frustrating. But Jim Darling (Whale Trust co-founder) once said to me, how cool is it to know the world is different than what people think it is, and they don’t know it yet and you do. It’s been a good ride.”
If you go
‘Among Giants’ photo exhibit, with whale sculptures by Randy Puckett
The Ordover Gallery, San Diego Natural History Museum, 4th Floor, 1788 El Prado, Balboa Park
10 A.M.–5 P.M. daily to Dec. 31