National Geographic’s Paul Nicklen

On Monday night at the Goodman Theatre, I heard Paul Nicklen, National Geographic photographer, talk about his work through National Geographic Live series. I heard him a few years ago at TedxMidwest and have been enchanted with his work ever since. He is obsessed with the polar regions. He risks his life regularly to get the most amazing shots of Arctic and Antarctic animals you will ever seen. He sees his work as an attempt to get people to care about shrinking ice. He’s also an amazing storyteller.

His most popular story is about his experiences with a leopard seal. I have now heard it twice and it gets even better every time. They are large seals that have gotten a bad reputation since they eat penguins and have occasionally killed people. But he decided he wanted to learn more and went out to photograph them in the water. To get there, they had to take a boat for eight days on rocky seas. He spent most of it very sick. One night he fell out of bed because of the seas and cut his leg.

Finally they get to their designated spot and they immediately see a leopard seal. It has a penguin in its mouth. The crew watches the leopard seal  rip off the head. There is blood and guts everywhere. Then Paul’s guide/assistant turns to him and says, “Okay, into the water.” Paul balks after what he has just seen. His guide/assistant responds, “You’ve spent the last eight days complaining about the water, your fear of failure, and more. Now get into the water.”

At this point, Paul Nicklen felt more afraid of his guide/assistant than the leopard seal. So he suited up and went into  the water. Upon submerging himself into the frigid waters, the leopard seal immediately came towards him with her mouth gaping open. These are big animals so the mouth is quite terrifying. He quickly wondered if this was going to be it. But he remembered that his guide told him that they may do threatening poses at him.  So he stayed calm as he could and took photos with his camera in the leopard seal’s mouth.

Eventually she stopped and left. He thought the encounter was over. However, it was only beginning. She came back with a live penguin in her mouth and she released it. She stared at him and he stared back. He realized that she had intended the penguin for him to eat. After a few moments of inaction, she decides that he needs assistance so she tires the penguin out so it’s weaker and easier to catch. Again, he does nothing.  He doesn’t like to anthropomorphize animals but he felt that he was disappointing her.

Over the course of several days, he would interact with her. She’d bring increasingly weak penguins for him to eat, which would result in many dead or dying penguins floating around Paul Nicklen’s head. She even started bringing him headless ones since she thought he was so inept at hunting. After a few days, she starts making the threatening motions again and he thinks that he’s overdone it and frustrated her beyond her limits. But he realized that there was a leopard seal that had snuck up behind him and his friend was scaring him off. She actually took off after the other seal.


For his photos, he really goes to the limit to get the best shots of incredible animals like walruses, polar bears, and narwhals. Mr. Nicklen frequently talked about how the conditions may be less than ideal but you have to get the shot. He’s constantly afraid of failure and pushes past it. He’s nearly died several times from walrus attacks, falling through the ice, and more. He also has a perchance to have guides who take photos of him while in the midst of danger. He also strives to get people to care about these animals and habitats. Without ice, we’ll lose a whole ecosystem including polar bears. You can tell that these worlds mean so much to him and that’s why he works so hard, risking life and limb to photograph him.

So if you have the chance to hear him speak, go and see him. He’s really the bees knees. And by all means, check out his work. It will change your world.


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