As a young man, photographer Paul Nicklen spent three months alone on the Canadian tundra. In an effort to better understand himself, he disconnected from the deafening noise of the everyday, seeking a slower, more engaged way of seeing the world. Nicklen emerged from this northern adventure confident of his future; through his camera and a passionate brand of storytelling, he would become an interpreter for landscapes and wildlife. He would tell their tales.
Extroverted by nature, this charismatic man is a surprisingly solitary creature. Though he casts a bright spark in a crowded room, Nicklen often spends his time alone, outside, in places new to him.
When I first met Paul 11 years ago, he was already on a path to becoming one of the most celebrated photographers of our time. Among the 22 visual narratives he has photographed on assignment for National Geographic, a handful have become iconic: the love affair with a leopard seal that tried to feed him penguins in Antarctica, his childhood memories of an Arctic upbringing among the Inuit, and his emotional narration of the effects of climate change in the High North. Nicklen’s stories are memorable for the unforgettable images, but it may be his passion for the wild corners of the world that has galvanized his place in history.
Guided by enduring passion and a deep understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems—Nicklen holds a Bachelor of Science in marine biology from the University of Victoria—he demonstrates the calm demeanor required to gain trust from the animals he photographs.
Perhaps Nicklen’s apparent sixth sense for understanding wildlife comes from the deep Canadian roots of his parents’ Saskatchewan farmland, or the adventures shared with hunters in the Inuit village where he was raised.
Many times I have seen wildlife approach him with genuine trust and curiosity, and they’ve been met without fear or aggression, always on the animal’s own terms. I once watched an imposing grizzly bear sink his teeth into a spawning salmon, not two feet from where Paul sipped a well-deserved glass of scotch at the end of a productive day. The bear then sat down and enjoyed the freshest of fish on the frozen banks of the Yukon’s Fishing Branch River. Two animals, comfortable in their environments, both alone and alongside each other.
During an expedition to Dominica in November with Sealegacy, the conservation organization we founded together in 2016, a juvenile sperm whale approached Nicklen while he was freediving. The whale appeared excited to interact with the strange being in her warm waters. Most people, even most wildlife photographers, would have been terrified. As I photographed the spirited calf playing with Nicklen, I could hear him giggling as the still-toothless baby attempted to grab his leg, curious to find out what he was made of.
With his gift of empathetic connection, Paul Nicklen has worked to the great benefit of wildlife. He creates unforgettable portraits of the species that face increasing survival challenges on our rapidly changing planet. Not content with being a gifted artist—a virtuoso with a camera—Nicklen uses the vast audience he’s built on stages both virtual and tangible, to build support for the protection of marine ecosystems that sustain the charismatic species he loves. In person, he is an entertaining and compelling speaker. Online, his Instagram account reads like an instruction manual on how to live in harmony with nature. Through both mediums, he shares advice, stories and facts that serve as a true north bearing; how to be a good citizen of Earth. Six million followers love him for it.
Beyond gaining the acclaimed and sought after position as an assignment photographer for National Geographic, Nicklen’s work has been recognized on the world stage: BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, World Press Photo Award for Nature, Natural Resources Defense Council BioGems Visionary Award, honourary Ph. D. at the University of Victoria, and, of course, his recent induction into the Photography Hall of Fame. Each is a testament to his continuing achievements, but it is the inclusion as a member of the Order of Canada that I know will make him proudest. Being recognized in his homeland is not only deserved but necessary. His experience and notoriety serve as a megaphone to take politicians and corporate leaders to task on the issues that Canadians care about. As his voice becomes louder, he will not hesitate to stand up for what is right.