Among Giants: A Life with Whales

Among Giants: A Life with Whales

by Charles ''Flip'' Nicklin, K. M. Kostyal, James Darling

It all started in 1965 with a guy riding a whale. The guy was Flip Nicklin’s father, Chuck, and the whale was an unlucky Bryde’s Whale that had gotten caught up in some anchor line. Hoping to free the whale, Chuck and some friends took their boat as near as they could, and, just before they cut it loose, Chuck posed astride it for a photo.

That image,


It all started in 1965 with a guy riding a whale. The guy was Flip Nicklin’s father, Chuck, and the whale was an unlucky Bryde’s Whale that had gotten caught up in some anchor line. Hoping to free the whale, Chuck and some friends took their boat as near as they could, and, just before they cut it loose, Chuck posed astride it for a photo.

That image, carried on wire services nationwide, became a sensation and ultimately changed the life of Chuck’s young son, Flip. In the decades since that day, Flip Nicklin has made himself into the world’s premier cetacean photographer. It’s no exaggeration to say that his photos, published in such venues as National Geographic and distributed worldwide, have virtually defined these graceful, powerful creatures in the mind of the general public—even as they helped open new ground in the field of marine mammalogy.

Among Giants tells the story of Nicklin’s life and career on the high seas, from his first ill-equipped shoots in the mid-1970s through his long association with the National Geographic Society to the present, when he is one of the founders of Whale Trust, a nonprofit conservation and research group. Nicklin is equal parts photographer, adventurer, self-trained scientist, and raconteur, and Among Giants reflects all those sides, matching breathtaking images to firsthand accounts of their making, and highlighting throughout the importance of conservation and new advances in our understanding of whale behavior. With Nicklin as our guide, we see not just whales but also our slowly growing understanding of their hidden lives, as well as the evolution of underwater photography—and the stunning clarity and drama that can be captured when a determined, daring diver is behind the lens.

Humpbacks, narwhals, sperm whales, orcas—these and countless other giants of the ocean parade through these pages, spouting, breaching, singing, and raising their young. Nicklin’s photographs bring us so completely into the underwater world of whales that we can’t help but feel awe, while winning, personal accounts of his adventures remind us of what it’s like to be a lone diver sharing their sea.

For anyone who has marveled at the majesty of whales in the wild, Among Giants is guaranteed to be inspiring, even moving—its unmatched images of these glorious beings an inescapable reminder of our responsibility as stewards of the ocean.

Editorial Reviews

Paul Nicklen
“Flip Nicklin’s work reaches us on a profound level: his images inspire. They make us feel hopeful, passionate, engaged, transported, alive. He takes us under the surface with him, into a universe where we have front row seats to the most magical and wonderful giants on our planet, allowing us to witness an otherwise unimaginable marine world. With his talent and vision, Flip singlehandedly took underwater photography—and marine mammal photojournalism in general—to an entirely new level. Flip is, simply, the best of the very best.”

Richard Ellis
"In Among Giants, Flip Nicklin's fabulous photographs and his captivating text combine to give us a true feeling for the animals of the interface between land and water (and sometimes ice). The world of whales is brought into focus by the world's best cetacean photographer, and his deeply personal story expresses his love and admiration for these marvelous and mysterious creatures. You will hold your breath as you descend into the depths with dolphins, belugas, sperm whales, and humpbacks, and exhale with sheer delight at the experience of diving with Flip and his enchanting companions."

" 'Flip' Nicklin is National Geographic's 'whale guy.' Any time the magazine runs a story on whales, Nicklin is the photographer sent to illustrate the story. It all began in 1963, when the author's father was running a dive shop in San Diego. When the father and  a couple of buddies discovered a Bryde's whale tangled in a gill net, they photographed the whale and then freed it. Inspired by both photography and diving, Nicklin bummed around until he got a chance to work as an assistant with humpback-whale research in Maui. There he got an iconic photograph of a male whale head down in the water, singing, and he was on his way. Nicklin has created an exciting tale combining the adventure (and drudgery) of field research and the discovery of what whales do and why. Humpbacks in Hawaii, narwhals and belugas in the Arctic, killer whales in Canada, sperm whales in Sri Lanka, and dolphins in Galveston Bay all tell their stories in Nicklin’s marvelous images."

Christopher Moore
“This is not only a book of extraordinary pictures, which it is, and the story of an extraordinary life, which it is; this is the story of the man who opened the window on a world we barely knew existed before his work. A compelling, engaging adventure story, well told. I can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Douglas Chadwick
“Flip Nicklin is my favorite marine mammal, and one to whom I am grateful beyond measure. As a colleague on National Geographic assignments, he guided me down into the underwater realm and shared the secrets he has spent so many years uncovering there. As an author, he does the same for readers in this revelatory tale of a life like no other among the biggest and most mysterious beings on the planet.”—Douglas Chadwick, author of The Wolverine Way

Rosamund Kidman Cox
“Flip Nicklin is one of the great names in nature photography—someone who has turned photography of marine mammals into art and inspired a generation. What’s surprising is that this is the first major collection of his work.

It contains his classics, often the first-ever picture of a species or a behaviour—many of which are still the best pictures of their kind—but also new images, often thought-provoking compositions of gatherings of great whales.

With his text, the book also tells a story of discovery and the growth of our understanding of whale behaviour. The salutary reminder of how little we know about whales is that some of the pictures that Flip has taken are of individuals that were alive long before (modern) whale biology was born.”—Rosamund Kidman Cox

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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11.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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A Life with Whales

By Charles "Flip" Nicklin, K. M. KOSTYAL


Copyright © 2011 Paraculture, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-58099-9



Coming of Age

"I wanted to photograph the world I saw when I put my head underwater."

DIVING AND WHALES weave in and out of my family like something embedded in our DNA. My great-great grandfather Philip Crosthwaithe arrived in San Diego, my hometown, on a whaling ship, though that wasn't his intent. He thought he'd signed on for a "fishing trip" to the Grand Banks. But the few-days trip turned into a six-month, life-twisting odyssey around Cape Horn—another kid shanghaied to crew on a whaler.

Whaling was not for Philip, so he jumped ship in San Diego. At that time, in the 1840s, it was a little Mexican town, and Philip eventually married into the prominent Lopez family, becoming a respected town figure himself. In his recollections, he described the waters off San Diego as filled with "great numbers of whales" that "came to deliver their young." Philip's grandsons, my grandfather Charles and his two brothers, returned to the sea, in a fashion. Among their businesses, they had a construction company that built piers along the coast, requiring them to do some hardhat diving. In 1947, the year before I was born, Charles drowned in a diving-related accident.

My family had a grocery store, Chuck's Market, in east San Diego. San Diego was a smaller town then, with a strong Hispanic flavor and presence, and I grew up in a neighborhood full of my Crosthwaithe kin. My great-uncle Marcos, who lived near us, left a big impression on me. He was a tough, beat-up guy, who walked with a cane and had fingers missing, all the result of diving accidents.

From the time I was an 11-year-old kid, I helped out in my dad's new business, the Diving Locker. Many of the guys who came in were free divers, abalone harvesters, spearfishermen—a rugged bunch. They weren't diving for recreation or glamor, they were diving for dinner. I remember a Greek diver trying to settle his bill at the shop with a jar of pickled octopus.

These characters weren't the only ones hanging around the Diving Locker, whose corporate name was Scientific Diving Consultants. My dad's original partners were all scientists from places like Scripps Institute. They were at least as eccentric as the other bunch. But they weren't after dinner. They were after discovery, a new way to see the oceans now that scuba gear let men swim with some of the freedom of fish. Their talk, their approach to the ocean mingled with the spearfishermen's and hung in the dive shop air. Being around them and watching how Chuck, as I called my dad, had changed his own life made me realize that there were a lot of different ways to live. And being part of the diving world, teaching diving, feeling at home in the water, was becoming part of my identity.

The world of the dive shop gradually got bigger after Chuck rode that whale in 1963. He became one of a very small group of divers who could also claim to be underwater photographers. That's when Bates Littlehales came into our lives. Bates was the underwater photographer at National Geographic and he wanted to swim with gray whales. He needed to talk to a whale expert, and Chuck qualified. After all, he'd seen a whale up close, underwater, and had even taken pictures of it.

Bates would come out to visit and we'd take him diving. I was in my late teens then, and he became a role model for me. He'd traveled the world and had exciting underwater adventures, but he wasn't full of himself. Just comfortable with himself and easy with me. The first underwater pictures I took were with a Nikonos camera with a fish-eye lens that Bates lent me.

Bates wasn't the only Geographic photographer who spent time at the Diving Locker. I also helped a guy named Jonathan Blair with specialty diving, showing him how to function underwater with his hands full of camera gear. When the Geographic sent Jonathan to cover the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, he asked me to come along as his "diving and camping assistant." To get in photographic shape for the trip, I went to the Caribbean for a week and did 38 dives. On each dive I shot a roll of film. The first picture I sold was from that trip—a shot of a grouper that ran in a kid's magazine. They paid me ten dollars.

The environmental movement was gaining momentum then, and the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Acts had been passed a few years earlier. Jonathan's Geographic story was going to be a celebration of the wildlife out on the islands—thousands of birds, monk seals, sea turtles, and all kinds of reef life.

For three months Jonathan, Steve Uzzell—a specialist in multimedia shows—and I covered the refuge islands in the remote northwestern part of the archipelago. We used the Coast Guard station on Tern Island as a base, then took little inflatable boats out to other islands in the refuge, some atolls no more than 100 yards by 50 yards. We really had to work to figure out where to pitch our tents because there was so much animal life. Endangered monk seals and green turtles came back and forth at the water's edge, and nests of frigates, boobies, tropicbirds, terns, and albatrosses were everywhere. On one of the larger islands there were an estimated six million birds, and countless bird lice that infested both the birds and us.

During the last few weeks of the assignment, Bates came out to join us. At night he and I would go diving, while Steve and Jonathan kept reminding us to look out for tiger sharks. The talk for the whole three months was of photography, how to see light, even how to "paint" with it. These guys lived and breathed photography. Being around them made me see photography in a whole different way. Both Bates and Jonathan gave me a chance to shoot situations they could easily have handled themselves, and when Hawaii's Far-flung Wildlife Paradise came out in the magazine two years later, a couple of my images were in it.

After Hawaii I picked up work here and there. I dove for a scientific consulting company based in Virginia that conducted environmental impact studies on prospective oil leases off California, Texas, and Louisiana. It was a way to make a living and shoot underwater, though some of the water I worked in was dark and dirty. I considered it diving for dollars. No fun. Occasionally, I had to wear a harness, so the guy above on the surface knew where I was. I couldn't avoid thinking that this was the kind of dark-water diving that my great-uncle Marcos had done with my grandfather.

For three years I didn't have a place of my own. I lived on boats on these assignments or slept in back of Chuck's dive shop in a sleeping bag. Or I bunked in with friends and family. I was saving the money I made to buy camera gear. I wanted to photograph the world I saw when I put my head underwater.

Just when I was at a real low point, I got a call from a multimedia company doing some work for Sea World in San Diego. They needed someone to photograph Sea World's new giant shark tank, and it was just what I needed to keep me going. That kind of chance assignment became part of a pattern: Every time I'd be ready to quit trying to be a photographer, something like that would pop up to keep me going. More than the income and experience, photographing captive sharks at Sea World gave me an idea for a National Geographic story.

In 1978 I flew to Washington, D.C., and had my first face-to-face contact with the National Geographic Society. I paid for the trip myself, but I told Bates the trip was being paid for by the Virginia-based scientific consulting company. And I told the consulting company the Geographic was paying for the trip. On many levels, that was my first foray into telling a story.

As always, Bates was helpful, encouraging, and ready to show me the ropes. He even arranged for me to meet the legendary NGS director of photography, Bob Gilka. Gilka was the highest life form I could imagine—for decades one of the most powerful people in photography and an advocate for photographers. The people he sent into the field regularly were called Gilka's Gorillas, and a wall at NGS headquarters was devoted to pictures of them in every corner of the world, clowning in tough situations. Like every young photographer, my greatest dream was to get there one day—on Gilka's gorilla wall.

On the day that Bates was going to bring Gilka by his office to meet me, and while I waited for them, I pored over hundreds of 35mm transparencies. They were "out takes" from the Hawaii assignment, spread on a light table. When I heard Bates and Gilka come in, I turned to meet them and knocked about 200 images onto the floor. Gilka said something like, "You look busy. I'll see you later." I figured I'd never see him again.

Gilka's brusqueness was famous, and he cultivated it. The sign outside his door said, "Please wipe your knees before entering." He once famously told an aspiring photographer, "It's good that you're young and strong, because what I'm going to tell you is going make you feel old and weak." The photographer didn't give up, and he's celebrated in the field now. I was determined not to give up myself. I wiped my knees and went in. Gilka sat back in his chair, his glasses low on his nose, listening politely but impassively as I talked on about my experiences so far.

I flew out of D.C. encouraged. I had a few small Geographic assignments, some day-long shoots, and others as a photo assistant. I'd also gotten to know other NGM photographers, and I'd even met Gil Grosvenor, the editor-in-chief of the magazine. I'd had the audacity to show him a few of my pictures, images I'd be embarrassed to show anyone today, but I was young and knew no better.

I went back to pick-up jobs in San Diego, but every time Geographic photographers came through town, I'd help out, officially or unofficially, hoping they'd leave me their extra film so I could keep shooting. In those days before digital photography, film and film developing cost a lot and I knew the more I experimented, the better I'd get. Getting a free "brick" of Kodachrome, a 20-pack carton, helped a lot.

While I was struggling to claw out a foothold in the world of photography, my dad Chuck was becoming more and more well known as an underwater cinematographer. He was shooting documentaries and Hollywood features like The Deep. He had always said, "Whatever I do, I'm going to do well. If I had been a street sweeper, I'd have been a famous street sweeper. I'd have named my broom and worn white gloves." In the late '70s he got an assignment to work on an IMAX film, Nomads of the Deep, and he brought me on to do stills. Today, there are scores of IMAX theaters all over the world, but at that time "Image Maximum" was the latest, greatest way to push the impact of photography forward. With screens measuring 72 feet across and 53 feet high, IMAX gave audiences the up-close thrill of really "being there"—in the ocean depths, on the mountaintops, wherever the camera took them.

In the winter of 1979 we flew to Maui to shoot humpbacks. Things had tightened up a lot since Chuck rode a whale, and now you needed a federal permit to get near most whales. Chuck went through Roger Payne and got included on Payne's permit. Chuck had worked with Roger in Patagonia in 1972 shooting right whales for the first underwater wild whale story the Geographic ever published.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Roger Payne and a colleague had described how humpback whales actually "sing," creating "exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound." He'd become a pioneering leader in whale research and conservation, and his album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, had captured the public's imagination. So had Joan McIntyre's wildly popular Mind in the Waters: A Book to Celebrate the Consciousness of Whales and Dolphins. Suddenly, whales had become iconic gentle giants—wise, mythic creatures. I had been in Hawaii in the late '60s, helping out in a dive shop on the Big Island that Chuck had part ownership in. Maui had been the place to party then. Now, a decade later, it was the place to whale watch.

I remember thinking at the time that it was probably too late to get in on the whole "photographing whales" thing, even though the first picture of humpbacks in the wild had only been published in 1975. The idea that scientific research would keep opening up new ideas, new developments, and even new species to photograph and study changed my thinking, especially after I met Payne's group of graduate students. Just like the humpbacks, they came to Maui each winter. The whales came to mate and calve; the graduate students—more than a dozen young men and women squeezed into one ramshackle, three-bedroom house—spent their time looking for whales.

In those days, there were few cetacean researchers at all, and fewer still doing field research, trying to study marine mammals in the wild. One of them was our main contact and the coordinator in the group, Jim Darling, a grad student at UC Santa Cruz who'd been hired by Payne to make recordings of singing whales.

It's not that easy to work around whales in open water, to position yourself so you don't disrupt or interfere with the whales' behavior but are close enough to shoot it. Jim had a real talent for that. On March 10, 1979, Chuck and I were tagging along behind Jim in our own boat in the waters between Maui and Lanai, where the humpbacks pass through. Then, for the first time, someone on Jim's boat spotted a singer down about 50 feet, hanging there, stationary, as it sang. He called us over to get pictures of the singer that would allow him to "sex" it—identify its sex. The idea was to photograph the whale in order to identify the individual, then photograph its genital area—the female has a single, long genital slit, whereas a male has two slits—to document its sex.

In those days, I could free dive without air down about a hundred feet and stay a minute. That made taking photographs of the whales a lot more feasible, as bubbles from air tanks change the whole human-animal dynamic. Bubbles are part of a humpback's display behavior, so if you go up to one wearing an air tank making a loud bright display, you're communicating something—but you don't know what—to an animal that weighs in at around 40 tons. Not a good idea. Free diving was the way to do this photographic sexing, and as the seasons wore on, I took more and more images for Jim, images that helped him establish that only male humpbacks sing. This was a big jump in understanding whale behavior.

Meeting and working with all these young, smart, passionate biologists was life-changing for me. It was a community I really liked and had had little exposure to. I was beginning to realize that underwater photography could do more than get me published, it could help tell the story of this new, changing field of marine mammal research. Here were a dozen or so graduate students who were taking our thinking on whales from myth and magic to an understanding of them as biological creatures. Before, scientists thought they had to kill a whale to study it, but these guys were studying the animals in the wild and identifying individuals by their distinctive natural markings. Jim asked me to come back the next year and work with them, doing more photography. I agreed.

Suddenly, things were breaking my way. I found out the Geographic had approved my shark story idea, only I hadn't been assigned as the primary photographer on the story. Still, I had gotten a piece of the puzzle. I was to photograph shark researchers and their work in various parts of the world. That was fine with me. I had a Geographic assignment, and, having worked with Jim and his colleagues on Maui, I realized I liked documenting scientists at work.

I'd also gotten used to the academic budget that the Maui researchers lived on, and it took me a while to realize the Geographic was willing to do better than that. One place I landed for the shark story was La Paz, Mexico, near the tip of Baja California, to cover researchers working on hammerhead sharks. The first thing I needed to do was hire a boat and crew, and I found three lobster boats for hire that had been donated by the Cuban government. They'd been painted on one side only, the side facing shore, so prospective clients wouldn't see what bad shape they were in. Only one was functional, and I settled for it. That was Friday, and I expected we'd be on our way, but the captain hid from us till after midnight, because, we later found out, he considered it bad luck to leave on a Friday.

That 60-foot bucket of his was hot and uncomfortable, and the water onboard was dirty. But the captain knew how to find sharks. He took us out to a seamount called El Bajo in the Gulf of California teeming with them—maybe 600 hammerheads, each six to nine feet long, so many that the ocean was dark with them.

The whole premise of the Geographic story I was working on revolved around the idea that sharks were, as the title proclaimed, "magnificent and misunderstood." The writer, scientist Eugenie Clark, believed that most were "timid toward man ... 'chinless cowards.'" That was hardly the image painted in vivid color in Jaws, which had come out in 1975. Standing on that old boat in the Sea of Cortes, staring down at the ominous, shifting stain under the sea surface as hundreds of sharks prowled, I certainly had second thoughts about getting in the water. But the fear of not getting the images I'd been sent to get was frankly more threatening. I'd come a long way and spent a lot of effort to find these animals and get to this point. I wasn't going to pass it up.

Excerpted from AMONG GIANTS by Charles "Flip" Nicklin. Copyright © 2011 by Paraculture, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Widely regarded as the world’s leading cetacean photographer, Charles "Flip" Nicklin grew up around his father’s small dive shop on the California coast. He went on to become National Geographic’s premiere whale photographer and marine mammal specialist. Over the last quarter century Flip has photographed more than thirty species of whales and dolphins, some so endangered their very survival is in question. In 2001 he co-founded Whale Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and public education. 

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