For National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, the dead penguin was proof that the leopard seal had a tender side. A man who has repeatedly placed his body at the mercy of sub-freezing waters and well-fanged predators, Nicklen sought to demonstrate that these half-ton mammals of the Antarctic are far less dangerous than they have been portrayed. Explorer Ernest Shackleton reported that they had attacked his men and his boat on multiple occasions; and in 2003, a starving seal clamped onto the leg of a British scientist, drowning her. But Nicklen spent four waterlogged days with a massive female who took him under her fin, protecting him and offering stunned, maimed, and half-eaten penguins for his consumption. He politely declined.
As those who read the magazine with the yellow borders know so well, the most riveting tales come in the final pages of each issue, where the photographers set down their cameras and tell readers what its like to be “On Assignment.” Nicklen’s gorgeous new book, Polar Obsession, falls into this tradition as he introduces each chapter with another hair-raising (or harebrained) episode in his bipolar quest to document a region threatened by global warming. A single story can often take years and require multiple trips to the earth’s most isolated places with 1,500 pounds of gear in tow. Nicklen camps on the ice for weeks at a time, living with Inuit hunters and feasting on raw seal meat, as he did as a child growing up on Canada’s Baffin Island. In the last 15 years, he has crash-landed an ultralight airplane, been nearly crushed by an elephant seal, and been lost in countless blizzards.
The book is organized by his assignments and their attendant miseries, with chapters tied to a geographic region and a focus — no, an obsession — on a particular creature. The cool palette of the polar zone — the blues, whites, and grays — and its endless, unchanging vistas would be crushing were it not for life Nicklen captures in each frame. From the jousting of two tusked narwhals surfacing for air in an ice hole to an albatross soaring above the cliffs of South Georgia Island, Nicklen’s book is a study not just in texture but in movement. In the most striking photograph in the book, he captures his beloved leopard seal in the act of decapitating a penguin: water drops hang in the air like glass marbles as the bird and its body are torn apart, connected by a scarlet tendril of flesh and entrails.
For all his bravado, Nicklen is not beyond introspection. He ponders the various threats to the region’s wildlife and recounts his own experiences with the melting glaciers in Norway. The action shots are broken up with moments of tranquility: a seal napping on an ice floe or the eerie glow of the aurora borealis in the Yukon. Most haunting of all is the cover photo of a polar bear diving under the vanishing ice, casting its reflection on the water’s surface and glancing out towards the reader with a look of utter vulnerability.