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.