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Whales are like people, some friendly, some not

Royal Gazette

Published January 17th 2013 at 8:00 am
By Jessie Moniz

Whales were once considered enormous, dangerous monsters that had to be hunted to protect society.

In the 1960s the mammals became known as “gentle giants of the sea”.

The truth of their existence lies somewhere in between, according to world renowned wildlife photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin.

“On my first day out I saw a group of humpback whales beating the heck out of each other,” said Mr Nicklin, who has been photographing whales for 27 years. “My first comment was ‘these don’t look like gentle giants’. The reality is far more interesting than the myth. What they are really like is more complex than the fundraising version. That is why I like working with science.”

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The cover of Charles 'Flip' Nicklin's Book

Mr Nicklin is a National Geographic contributing photographer, and has published ten books on whales. The latest, ‘Among Giants: My Life with Whales’, is biographical . He is also one of the founders of Whale Trust, an organisation that supports scientific research of whales.

He will give a public lecture on behalf of the Bermuda Zoological Society on Tuesday. He will also be the guest speaker at the Bill Scott Memorial Fundraising Gala Silent Auction on Wednesday.

Photographing whales has not been without its frustrations, he said. Whales can be very elusive, with some deep water whales only spending five minutes on the surface before disappearing for hours.

“I did a story on sperm whales in Sri Lanka and spent six months there,” said Mr Nicklin. “During that time I shot about four-and-a-half rolls of film. It is very exciting once in a while. You have to stay ready and do the mundane things during the down time. The reason it takes so long to get a picture of a whale is because you are waiting for a good situation and good weather. Almost all the work we do is under special scientific permits.”

One of the reasons he is coming to Bermuda is to memorialise Bill Scott, a former BZS president who died a few years ago. He and Mr Nicklin were friends for 23 years.

“I met him when I was doing a dolphin story for National Geographic, Dolphins in Crisis,” said Mr Nicklin. “He was a volunteer helping researchers. He first had me come to Bermuda to speak in 1990 and I came back many times. He helped us with our work in Maui, Hawaii and was on our board of directors for Whale Trust. We called him ‘Mad Dog’ and he was a great friend. One of the things that was so great about Bill was that he kept things from being boring. Having a good attitude is a very important thing.”

He only films the “easy” humpback whales species, he said. More difficult to capture are narwhals, the whales that gave rise to the myth of the unicorn. They have a long sharp tusk on their face, live in the frigid arctic waters and are very shy.

“I think there are only two people who have shot them successfully me and a young man who I mentored called Paul Nicklen,” said Mr Nicklin. “You can really get beat up filming them. You are working on breaking ice in the higher Arctic. The first time I did it I spent three-and-a-half months there before I was able to shoot one. The whales can’t come into the frozen areas until the ice starts to break. You are out on snow machines. You have to be able to do your work while a big ditch of ice comes apart. For me I grew up in warm weather [in Hawaii] so it was as dangerous a place as I had ever been in.”

He has had a snow machine plunge through thin ice. The trick, he explained, is to get off the thing before it goes under, and then ride on the back of someone else’s machine.

“I feel remarkably lucky,” he said. “I have had bumps and bruises and never been seriously injured. In 27 years I have never broken a bone.”

Mr Nicklin has more than 5,500 dives under his belt, but he can also free dive to depths of up to 90ft (27 metres). This allows him to swim near enough to record whale behaviour without bothering the whale too much.

He learned how to dive from his father, Charles Nicklin, an underwater cinematographer. At 14 years old, Mr Nicklin was helping his father teach people to dive off the coast of southern California.

He has never been attacked by a whale. He approaches whales much the way you would an unknown dog, cautiously.

“They are just like people,” he said. “Sometimes they are friendly and sometimes they are not. They have personalities, and differences, particularly from species to species.”

The good news is that since he first started working with whales, whale populations have increased thanks to increased legislation to protect them.

“When my father started looking at humpback whales in the Pacific around Hawaii [in the late 1960s] there were less than 2,000 humpback whales and now there are thought to be 22,000,” he said. “It turns out if you don’t kill them they do much better. They were protected in 1966.”

He praised the work of local filmmaker and author Andrew Stevenson who has been studying whales in Bermuda waters for several years.

“He has done a great job of popularising the whole situation,” said Mr Nicklin. “He has been raising public awareness. You know, the first whale song every recorded came from Bermuda. That was very important for humpback whale study.”

Tuesday’s lecture takes place at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute at 7pm. Tickets are $40 and available on www.bzs.bm or at bookings.bzs@gov.bm . Wednesday’s auction takes place at Gosling’s Wine Cellar from 7pm to 10.30pm. Tickets are $200 each and include cocktails and a three-course meal. For tickets, e-mail development.bzs@gov.bm.