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Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
Photographer Paul Nicklen braves subzero temperatures and the occasionally overfriendly leopard seal to produce breathtakingly beautiful pictures like the ones in his newest book, Polar Obsession.

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.”

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Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
Much of that awesome beauty has been collected in Polar Obsession (National Geographic Focal Point, $50), Nicklen’s first book produced in conjunction with National Geographic. In words and large-format images, Nicklen recounts some of the most harrowing and remarkable experiences he’s had while working in the icy extremes at both ends of the world. There was the time he was nearly crushed to death on South Georgia, an island in the far South Atlantic, by a 9,000-pound elephant seal that thought Nicklen wanted to engage in chest-to-chest battle. And the time in Antarctica when a 12-foot-long leopard seal, out of either sympathy or friendship, tried to feed Nicklen penguins as he took her picture. Nicklen declined the meal, in part because he was wearing scuba gear, holding a camera encased in a waterproof bubble, and documenting the seal’s gesture in a series of dramatic pictures.

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.”

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Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
In his late teens, Nicklen took up photography and began merging his artistic interest with biology studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Just a few years after graduation, he became a full-time photographer, working in the Arctic, a place where other photojournalists were a rarity and still are. “There’s not a lot of competition,” Nicklen admits. “That’s not because of the technical challenges of shooting there so much as the challenges of personal survival. If you took someone from New York who had never been to the Arctic before and said, ‘Go do a story on narwhals,’ that person would probably spend 90 percent of their time just trying to survive. But because of where I grew up and because I am so comfortable there, I can spend 95 percent of my time working and just five percent trying to stay warm. Of course, I was just in New York, and I told my friends there that I’m more scared of being in the New York subway than I am of being in the wild. That’s just not my element.”

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.”