YOU WOULDN’T THINK that a man who makes his living photographing dangerous animals in the world’s coldest waters would be afraid of sharks. But Paul Nicklen is. “If you’ve seen all the Jaws movies, the fear becomes ingrained in you,” says 41-year-old Nicklen, the world’s leading cold-weather, underwater wildlife photographer. “Like, if I’m floating on the surface of the water where there are orcas -- killer whales -- and I’m watching a seven-foot-tall dorsal fin come toward me, I’m absolutely terrified.”
But here’s the thing: Steven Spielberg’s influence can be negated. All you have to do is dive under. “Underwater, everything becomes absolutely peaceful,” Nicklen says. “Those animals are so graceful and balletlike that you’re just in awe of their beauty.”
Nicklen is no stranger to bizarre foods. He grew up on Baffin Island in Nunavut, one of Canada’s northernmost territories and a place where temperatures regularly fall to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The island community is composed of a tiny, mostly Inuit population that dines on anything it can pull from beneath frozen waters. “I loved the dramatic weather and the wildlife,” says Nicklen, who used to nest himself in huge snowbanks after a big storm. “I was maybe a bit of a weird kid.”
Nicklen’s new book, and much of his work in photojournalism, makes a subtle case that more must be done to protect cold-weather creatures and their environments -- especially from polar-ice-melting climate change. “We stand to lose an entire polar ecosystem because of climate change,” he contends.
That’s why Nicklen hopes Polar Obsession will make the world’s most otherworldly regions seem a little more accessible to those of us who don’t get to share his subzero experiences. Funny thing about that, though, is, if he could, Nicklen would leave the camera at his home in the Yukon Territory. “I’m always looking at these amazing things through this little box instead of just experiencing them,” he says. “When you’ve got a leopard seal the size of a grizzly bear engulfing your whole head in its jaws, it would be amazing to just watch.”
He pauses and reconsiders: “Well, actually, maybe it is a little less scary if you get to see those jaws through a fish-eye lens.”