Interview with photographer, Paul Nicklen


1. You’ve spent much of your career photographing and filming marine life. What inspired that focus?

Early in my career, I was a wildlife biologist with the government in the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife. I was doing very left-brained research but all my life I’ve seen the world in shapes and colours. I very much live in my right brain, and I love to see nature that way. I was working on lynx, caribou, and polar bears in the last year of my job and it was driving me crazy seeing so much beauty - a mother polar bear teaching her three cubs how to hunt seals on sea ice -  and then turning that into nothing more than a data sheet. It essentially cost me my job because I refused to put my camera down and it started to drive my colleagues nuts. Today, I see my job as a storyteller, as a photographer, as a scientist and as a conservationist to bring the ocean to the world and show them how beautiful it is. When people see it the way I do, they will start to really care.

2. You are one of the co-founders of SeaLegacy. What motivated this project, and what kind of work do you do through it?

Photography has the power to change minds.  It has the power to break down the walls of apathy and grab people by the heart and then teach them something. That's where you start to change minds, but you have to make that emotional connection first. The objective of our work is to create movements and revolutions. It is to put pressure on governments, politicians, corporations, and on empowering individuals to be the change they want to see; the change this world needs.  We know that science is essential, but it has failed to “save the planet” despite the vast resources that have been invested in scientific research over the past 50 years. We connect art with that science and then move into conservation through expert communication.

3. What’s a common misconception about the Arctic that you feel people have, or that would open their eyes to our need to be kinder to our planet?

For me, the ​biggest misconception about the Arctic is when people think that it's this lifeless, frozen seascape.  They look over the sea ice, and they see nothing but barren, white ice against this white-out sky, and it looks dead. When you take your mask though, and look below the ice, and dive under there, you realize it's probably one of the richest ecosystems in the ​world, with the highest bio-density of life in the form of amphipods, copepods and polar cod in massive swarms that are the foundation of the food for all the top predators. Beluga whales, narwhals, bearded seals, ring seals, obviously polar bears, and all the species that feed on this bounty of life. It's so incredibly rich. It's not diverse like you'd get in a rainforest. There are a lot fewer species, but what's there is big like bowhead ​whale, the second largest whale in the world ​​​based on size, based on weight.  In the Arctic, hundred-ton animals are living on some of the smallest creatures, and it's incredible how much food it takes to create and sustain such a leviathan in these icy seas.

4. What do you consider the greatest threat to our oceans today?

The biggest threat to our oceans today is apathy. Often, when it comes to the ocean, it’s out of sight, out of mind, and there’s no way to easily quantify and visually see the degradation of our oceans. To say that there are 95% fewer big fish in the sea than there was 20 years ago - what does that mean for our planet and what does that look like? The ocean is this body of water that wants to thrive, wants to be the breadbasket of the earth but we put so much pressure on it with microplastics, with acidification, warming temperatures, carbon emissions, overfishing, oil pollution and general disregard for the oceans, that we've made it almost impossible for it to thrive. The ocean needs our help now. If we fail to act, we'll pass the point of return.

5. What can people do to help protect marine life?

The first step in all of this is that everyone needs to become aware that the oceans need our help. People need to open up and be willing to change.  Next, is to actually start taking small actions - once you start to go down the path of caring it actually really sucks because it can seem like such an uphill battle. At the same time though, it's incredibly rewarding. You can't ever go back. Life tastes better when you care. Every time you go into a restaurant, be aware of what you're eating. What's going in your mouth?  Every time you go to a grocery store to shop be very aware of what you're purchasing. Every time you go to the voting poll understand fully who you are you're voting for and what they stand for.  Inspire your kids. If your school's cafeteria is full of plastic, why can't you get rid of that?  Take on these things. The philanthropy that you do, where you invest, all of it is a choice, and all of it is a step in the right, or wrong, direction.