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Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | Suspended Grace in the Time of Climate Change

November 13, 2022

This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Paul Nicklen.

“A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.”

– Ansel Adams

When It Comes to Saving the Planet, One Whale is Worth a Thousand Trees.

Behind every picture there is a story. I have always tried to do more with my photography than ask people to look and then move on. A compelling image asks us: Does this subject move me, does it make me feel, think, and dream? Does it make me want to be a better steward of the planet? As an artist who works closely with wildlife, I have always strived to create portraits that get people to look inward and question their relationship with nature.

In recent weeks, I have shared some of my favorite limited-edition prints from my 34 years as a nature and conservation photographer. In everything I have done, though, I often keep coming back to whales as the true charismatic symbols of life in the natural world — and a signpost of the looming perils that face all of us here on Earth.When it comes to saving the planet, one whale is worth thousands of trees. Marine biologists have discovered that whales, the great whales in particular, play a significant role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere.

“Suspended Grace”
My goal is always to share these incredible moments so the viewer can experience them as close to the real thing as possible. The beautiful sperm whales in this image were not interested in my creative vision, which made capturing an intimate moment all the more unlikely. I never have control over the animals — nor am I looking for that — in my photographs.
I managed to make this image 30 feet down in the clear turquoise waters off Dominica. It was an encounter I had envisioned for years.
Once this mother and calf, affectionately named ‘Soursap’ and ‘Ariel’ by our local guides, settled in for an hour-long sleep the only limiting factor was my ability to try to free-dive into position gracefully. She had spent her entire morning feeding on squid nearly a mile under the surface, and it was time to recover. She floated vertically in the water column while squid tentacles drooped from her mouth like ribbons swaying gently in the current.
My life as a conservationist and visual storyteller has helped me understand that people are more likely to care about the ocean if they respond to the charismatic megafauna that call it home. I knew that by giving the viewer a glimpse into the soul of a proud matriarch and her offspring, it would open their hearts to this mysterious world.
I have captured millions of images during my career, and ‘Suspended Grace’ certainly remains one of my favorites.

Wherever whales, the largest living beings ever to have existed on Earth, are found, so are populations of some of the smallest living organisms, phytoplankton. Scientists have discovered that whales increase phytoplankton production wherever they go, in a never-ending cycle of life, through their waste. Whale waste contains minerals, gases, and nutrients that phytoplankton needs to grow. More phytoplankton means more carbon capture, and that’s key to combatting climate change. If whales return to their pre-whaling number of 4 to 5 million — the worldwide population has crashed to little more than 1.3 million today — we would all be better for it.

The CoP 27 climate conference underway in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt is a timely, and worrying reminder that a rapidly changing climate is just one peril that threatens the world’s remaining whales. Whales still face significant life-threatening challenges, from ship strikes and becoming entangled in fishing nets to plastic waste and noise pollution. And hunting of great whales continues to this day in countries like Iceland, Norway, and Russia. While some species of whales are recovering — humpback whales, for example — many are not.

A lot has changed in the 35 years since I first decided to document our connection to nature by creating a visual record of the patterns of wildlife around us. I trust that some of my images from the world’s polar regions and the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia, and everywhere in between, have made a difference. I know, too, that without photography, storytelling, science, and conservation, the ocean dies in silence.

An 80,000-pound, 45-foot-long leviathan bursts from the sea, twisting like a corkscrew as it reaches for the sky, seawater streaming from its pectoral fins in a cloud of spray and wind.
There are many different kinds of whale breaches – tail breaches, chin breaches, back-flop breaches, and side breaches, to cite a few — but the spinning breach is by far my favorite to photograph.
Captured here at a lightning-fast 1/3200th of a second, this image seems a fitting tribute to this species’ recovery from the brink of extinction. After decades of relentless whaling, activist groups have finally secured stronger protections for humpback whales, and their numbers have recovered significantly.
I hope to celebrate many more conservation stories of resilience through my art as we work together to solve the climate crisis and protect our planet’s vital ecosystems.


“Orca Mist”


“Antarctic Veil”
Some images have the power to amplify every sensory detail of the precise moment they were captured.
I snapped this frame after watching hundreds of whales dive beneath the water’s glassy surface to feed on krill, the lifeblood of Antarctica’s delicate marine habitats.
The whale rose and vanished within a few seconds, leaving me with just the echo of its blowhole clearing and the splash of icy seawater pouring from its fluke. That fleeting memory is forever etched in my mind through this one image. Still images give us pause and allow us to experience a moment of quiet reflection away from the cacophony of the world in these present times.
Every story is different, whether I’m in the Antarctic or the Arctic. It’s about letting people know what lies beneath the surface — showing how a bad ice year affects krill, for example, and how the ripple effects affect the entire system. I strive to create compositions that grab my viewers by the heart, so they may learn to care for this living world.
I hope that through some of the images here and on my website, and through the work my partner Cristina and I continue to do with SeaLegacy, we focus more attention on the defining issue of our age. The impacts of climate change are here and now, evident for all to see. The climate fight will be won or lost in this decade. It is up to us to decide whether we win or lose.



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