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NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
8 Aug 1995

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NPR/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY RADIO EXPEDITIONS
"OCEANS OF LIFE" INTERVIEW WITH NGS
PHOTOGRAPHER FLIP NICKLIN
AUGUST 8, 1995

FN: ... smooth area on the sea, and look down there and discover the whale is still there, and once Jim Darling and Karen Miller saw that the first time -the people i was working with in hawaii -and then we could get in the water, and see about taking a camera down there to those animals. it was very, very exciting

[br: yeah]. and one of the first things you find out is that it's the sound -you know what the whale looks like. you've seen the whale when you put your head under water, there -it's like putting your head into a kettle drum [br: ok] -there is this tremendous booming sound.
br: tell me about diving in the ocean w/all of these creatures
1:15 fn: i grew up in a diving family. my father ran a diving store in san diego -still runs a diving store with my brother in san diego, and free-diving, snorkeling, was how we grew up, and primarily for spear fishing and catching abalone. so when i came into starting to work with whales, it was that my background was skin diving, not using scuba tanks, but just taking a big breath and going down. it turned out that it was good for what turned out to be my niche in photography, is to go up and try to be around those animals, and trying to be as quiet, and undisturbing as possible, so that you can get in there, and look at what is going on w/o causing a change or reaction because of the noise, and when you go underwater bubbles -for one thing they are loud going in; they are also very bright and white, and they expand as they go up. so instead of doing that, most of my work -almost all of my work has been just taking a big breath, being very quiet and trying to be around the animals w/o changing the situation. 2:15
br: humpback whales -what is it like to dive w/whales
fn: the most exciting thing about it and my start to diving w/whales was in hawaii, and to try and take an animal that lives most of its life underwater, so if you are really going to see it, and see its behavior and interactions you have to get into the water with it. the most exciting thing when i started when working with jim darling and karen miller in 1979 and working with singing humpbacks. you've got an animal that is in a world that you can't see very far, so sound is very, very important. you can't use visual signals, you use sound signals to give your message -whatever it is, whether it's to stay away or to come closer. however you want to communicate to the other animals. the other animals around you. we knew humpbacks were signing. roger payne had done his work off bermuda. jim darling was continuing that work. and one day, in 1979 in march, with a whale called frank, he looked down after the whale dived -or karen actually looked down -and through the smooth area that the tail made as it descended, they found that the whale didn't continue to swim, it was still there, and by looking through that little window in the ocean, that smooth spot, they could see the white pectoral of the male moving back and forth, and could hear the sound of the whale coming up through the hull of the boston whaler. and i happen to have been there working on a film with my father, they called us over, and this was the first time we got in w/signing whales. and it was tremendously exciting. i mean you go up, look for the smooth spot, see the whale, slip over the side, and when you slipped over the side and put your head under the water it was this booming sound -you heard some of it in the boat, but it was nothing compared to putting your head underwater and it was like being in a kettle drum. 4:29
br: and then you dove down.
4:32 fn: well, the first time i tried to get my heart out of my throat -i men it is a very exciting thing, and you want to -one of the things w/free diving down in any situation is to relax, and get caught up, and get ahead of the situation. and this was very, very exciting stuff, and it seemed impossible even to get a big breath. and the whale is laying there, in this case 30 to 40 feet below the surface. its head is facing down, its tail is sort of parallel to the surface, and it is laying there, basically stationary, just barely moving its pectorals to hold its position, and booming the sound out, and you know you got about 12 mins of it doing this before it gets through that rendition, comes up for more breaths and goes back down. so the whole idea was to take a few deep breaths, and then try to sneak down under the tail -we had a little scuba tank, not for breathing, but for coming back up with -taking a few big breaths, trying to relax, trying to figure out what we are going to do, and then trying to go down and sneak down under the tail, where they use the tail to block the whale view of you, so you line up the tail wlits eyes, sneak down right on top, and then duck under, and what jim darling wanted me to do was to go underneath, and try and shoot a picture of the genitals of -the bottom of the whale, because at this point, we didn't know who that animal was ...was it a male, was it a female, do they all sing? and the work we did finally brought out that these were male humpback whales. which starts to make sense with the whole social action going on out there. we found out that the animals that were in this classy position booming out these songs were males. 6:02
6:03 br: what was it like? how close were you to the males....
6:11 fn: well the song was a continuing thing. even when the animal was on the surface. it had been singing for a while, that's what brought us close to the whale. the animal went down,
and as quickly as we could we get on top of the smooth spot, see the whale down below, slip over the side, take a few big breaths, and it would seem like it took forever, but probably the whole dive -the point to where you left the surface, went down 50 or 60 feet, tucked under the tail, got w/in 10 feet to shoot a picture w/an underwater camera and a strobe, and then when the blink went off the whale would look at you and re-settle, move off 100 feet, and you would come back up. and that whole time until you took that picture is probably 40 seconds to a minute. it seemed like a life time, but it was -it didn't take much time at all. take a deep breath out of the tank and come up, and then take a breath, and then we would re-situate if we didn't get the picture we would try until we did, or else we would go off to another singer and try to sex it. 7:06
br: what was it like....
fn: when we tuck under the tail we were probably 5 or 6 feet away, and then coming to take the picture, less than 10 feet away, and it is a tremendous percussion sound coming from the whale. it is this booming sound, and all of your air spaces are resonating with that -your sinuses and your lungs -and you feel it as much as hear it, and it's just... sound travels 40 times as fast in water as it does in land, so it is coming from all directions, you don't feel like it is coming from the front of you or the side -it is surrounding you. and that is pounding at you the whole time, and at the same time you are wondering is my f stop correct, am i close enough, is the focus set properly. but it's ah everything is working. it was so exciting, that i wouldn't remember what i did, i wouldn't remember pictures, i wouldn't remember f stops, i remembered it was a great situation, but it was most of the time just having everything thought of before i started. because when you are down there it was just moving awfully quickly. and it was a big, big whale, and these animals were 35 or 40 feet, and you just feel so small and insignificant next to the animal. and every time it would twitch you would wonder this was new to me, whales were new to me. is it going to swim off and pound me with its tale as it goes by... it turned out to be completely unjustified fears. nothing like that ever happened, but the first time you do something like that you think about it. 8:44
br: what happens if they did hit you with a tail
8:49 fn: i think it would be real bad for you if they hit you it a tail. and you see in groups of mails that are pursuing a female they pound on each other. they do a little half breaches, they hit themselves -each other with tails underwater so this loud crashing sound, and you see them pound into each other, and blowing bubbles. if they ever aimed that at you, you would be jelly. it would be a horrible situat-i have never seen anything
like that. it is remarkable how benign the humpback whales would be. in cases where someone would make a mistake, get in the line, you would see the animals go out of their way to lift a tail, or lift a pectoral around them, and not bump the person. and there are occasional inadvertent little bumps, but nothing that was serious or harmful to anybody i ever saw. 9:37
br: no danger of being bitten or anything like that...
9:40 fn: no. humpbacks don't have teeth, they are a baleen whale and though i guess you could be brushed to harm. i can't imagine it. the animals -two minds with humpback whales. one is that
they do some very aggressive things to each other, especially in courtship situations. but as far as everything i ever saw with people it was just unbelievably gentile. and especially when you are working with cows and calves. which was always the situation you would worry about -a mother with a child. and always very cautious. there are times you did get close, and the calf would get interested and come up to you. and at that point, it would have been -certainly would have seem justified to me that the female would have felt very protective, and i never had any sign of that. 10:28
br: it seems to me that when you are next to a whale that is singing...
10:54 fn: no, definitely going under the singer, when you tuck under the tail, and get very, very close to the whale that was signing it was uncomfortable. it was so loud, and so vibrating that it was like being in some kind of percussion instrument and having your whole body vibrate. you are thinking about a lot of other things, but it was too much of a good thing when you get that close. it wasn't at the point of being harmful or, it almost was as though you weren't hearing it, but as though you were feeling it. that the pulsing was going through you more as the air space is vibrated rather than you are hearing it just with your ears.
11:34 br: how far does the sound carry....
11:39 fn: i think a signing humpback -around 5 miles. and you could be... it was always interesting. the people would dive under a wave at ganna pauli, at the beach close to shore, and go -"god there is a whale right here" and it would sound if you hadn't been close to a whale, you could be 1, 2, 3 miles away, and put your head underwater when one was singing, and think it might be quite close. we spent a lot of time trying to find whales by just listening and following them before jim and karen discovered that there was easier way to do it, but it was very hard to pin them down. 12:09
12:10 br: one way of finding whales to research is to put a trans...
12:27 fn: definitely from way back into the 70s we've been putting radio tags and different kinds of transponders on whales, trying to figure out their migratory routes, their populations stocks, where they are going for a number of different reasons.
the big jump in recent years has been using satellite technology, where the new transponders are -collect a number of not just ¬don't just tell you where the animal is but collect information on how deep its diving, how long it is staying down, even the possibility of water temperatures and currents. and when it comes back up it shoots that off in a code to a satellite, and you can be sitting half way around the world, and be getting that information. and recently we were doing a study -i was doing a story for national geographic on belugas. we were sitting on elsmere (sp?) island, and calling cambridge england, and finding out where the whales were by satellite plenotry (sp????). 13:25
br: so here you are. you are down there looking for whales ... you are relaying on space technology...
13:39 fn: well space technology. and another thing that is really exciting, especially for sound, and for the whole idea of a sound medium like radio is through the navy submarine network now. chris clark from cornell university has been using that Submarine tracking technology to follow whales by their acoustic systems by following blue whales and minke whales -their vocal traces, as much as the navy used it for trying to track submarines. 14:07
14:48 br: tell me about some of the experiences you have had swimming w/creatures....
14:55 fn: well i would say that swimming with whales has been the most exciting thing -i mean it changed the direction of -i wasn't interested in photographing whales in the beginning in the 70s when it seemed like it was so much myth and magic. but when people like jim darling and roger payne started -we could see things ........basically that over time i have been able to swim with so many different species and see that the whales are all so different. i think it becomes a pet peeve when people say that whales all do this. because diff whales do diff things at diff times of year in diff places. and to be able to go to so many places and look at so many diff species of whales has been a wonderful experience. just -and to jump in a number of times when you really didn't know what was going to happen, it has always worked out very well. but just to swim w/ narwhals, when males were fighting underwater. or to swim up to a sperm whale the first time i saw one that was holding... ah, ah i can't talk about this one i forgot ... ah to swim up with belugas when you are at the edge of an ice-edge, and then one comes up to look at you and then 5, and then 10 and the 50 and pretty soon 50 of these animals are swimming around in crystal clear water. these little white guys so focused on you. just the experience of going place to place with dolphins and whales and look at the diff societies and how diff they are as a ....16:28
br: would many people are fascinated w/traveling in space. how would that compare to your list of things you like to do...
16:43 fn: i don't know. it doesn't appeal to me at all. being underwater i think is a great thing, mainly because you can't fall down, which i see as a real big plus. going up in space -i saw apollo 13 -is terrifying. being underwater is very comfortable to me just because i grew up doing that. to make those little
jumps...for me if i can dive 70 feet, that's a deep dive for me. other people dive much deeper. whales are -sperm whales are diving 1000s of feet to just go in and just peak into that world that most people aren't seeing... i guess since i was a kid seeing new things, or seeing things that few people have the chance to see, whether it is poking your head over an ice edge in the arctic or sticking your face over the side of a boat into a bunch of whales that haven't been looked at very much, those collections of rare experiences have been super. and i don't see any end of them. i think the more we are learning, and i think we are learning so quickly about the animals that i think there is no end of things i can think of to do. 17:47
br: you'd rather.... CUT HERE
18:04 br: so you are down there with this enormous whale...what is it like to be so close up to these critters
18:14 fn: talking about the biggest whales and right whales, southern right whales in patagonia, they are large, and on a very good day they can be very good to work with and at they are big ¬very large animal. close to 50 feet and very deep bodied, and i guess it is like in low light walking up to a wall, a big building, and you get closer and closer, and i am looking at this through a wide lens, a very wide lens, and when you take that away it is just all animal. you are just surrounded, and you feel like you are so close you are just falling into it -like you want to put your hand out, and you are still 10 feet away, and it is just that you realize how small you are in the scheme of things, and how big this animal is and .... 18:58
br: you must get that feeling to when you look them in the eye.....
19:05 fn: and you do occasionally. again in patagonia we had some sub-adults who would come up and actually present themselves so close that the eye would be w/in touching distance, and actually had one that was there, and i did put my hand out and touch it near the eye, and it turned out into an event that the animal enjoyed it so much that it ended up pounding me almost to a pulp, nothing aggressive, but just enjoying not so much being petted, but just dragging me down its side a number of times, and getting a scratch out of me like a giant puppy leaning into you when you have no ???? nothing aggressive, but it was still uncomfortable. 19:40
br: and all you were doing was just touching him...
19:44 fn: well, he was close to me, and what i was doing -i wasn't trying to touch his eye or anything...i as out of film, it was late in the day, and it was right there presenting itself, and it had done it with its chin earlier. and so i put my hand out, and it leaned into it, and then leaned...after a time or two no longer was i close to petting the animal, i guess it was like getting a very gentile massage with a volkswagen. it was just something that was too much of a good thing. 20:15
br: these animals are so big you would think they would be immune from any danger from another critter....
20:29 fn: well, i think they are threatened mainly by today. certainly they have gone through a time when hunting was a tremendous threat, and still can and could be,and the other threats of habitat destruction and threat. one of the things was that many of the large whales, the plankton eating whales, the zooplankton eaters like a bow-hit in the arctic, which is an animal that can be over 50 feet long, and eats a coppa pod that is a quarter of an inch long with nothing in between, so it is a direct top of the food chain going very close to the bottom of the food chain. if you do something that interrupts that bottom of the food chain all of those top animals disappear. so i think a loss of habitat, a loss of feed, a loss of a number of things that are a real possibilities are a very important threat to these animals. some of the river dolphins especially have habitats that are in tremendous danger right now. 21:18
br: give me an example how the bottom of the food chain might be wiped out or ...
21:28 fn: well i think there is any number of ways. some of the things with pollution, temperature changes that interfere with the reproductive rates or survival success of krill, copepods or euphasids (sp??) if those animals -it is not just the point that they disappear, but if they just loose density to give the animal enough energy to be far enough ahead that it can reproduce and do the things it needs to do to continue. it doesn't have to kill the animal or starve the animal, it can just take it to the point where it just decreases its reproduction. still you loose the animal over time.22:03
br: is overfishing a problem here?
22:05 fn: i think overfishing certainly is. mainly i think taking things from the ocean without knowing what we have to work with in the first place, and we have such a record of fishery after fishery being degraded, and then more pressure being put on another fishery, and that fishery going down hill. that we can't take from the sea just what we want somewhere there has to be a budget. we have to know what there is available, and stay wlin reasonable, very conservative limits. our history whether it is whale fishing or fishing for salmon or whatever has not been that kind of restrain. restrain is not something we do very well as human beings i don't believe. 22:42
br: how could overfishing hurt a whale?
22:45 fn: well, it depends on the kind of whale. i just moved here from the northwest. salmon fishing because of rivers that have been dammed, and because of degraded streams and reproductive areas salmon fishing has been all but disappeared off oregon and washington. a number of the killer whales in that area -the residential group -eat salmon. so if you take the salmon and they disappear then those animals that eat the salmon are going to be in trouble, and it may be because of a river -not because of the ocean at all, so it is a real complex web, and i think we dabble into and make inroads -or big sections of a habitat w/out understanding how it's really all going to fit together. 23:27
br: some of these whales depend on these tiny creatures in the sea...what would happen if the small creatures were eliminated
23:59 fn: well i think the small creatures are eliminated the whales are going to disappear. whether it is from overfishing, or from destroying the habitat from the shallows (?) of reproduction or success of those small creatures from temperature change that makes that animal no longer viable in that temperature range. any number of things that can be done could cause a change, and again it doesn't have to be a dramatic change -it can be often we are working on a success rate that is needs at least an optimal yield on a regular basis. change the temperature a couple of degrees in the arctic, ice doesn't move as fast, feeding season is shortened, access to clear water shortens and the success of animals living there can change dramatically with just one or two degrees of temperature change.
24:41
br: is hunting the biggest threat to whales?
24:43 fn: i don't think hunting is the biggest threat today. it certainly was going into the 60s, and it still could be, and with specific stock largely there is a moratorium today. i think
habitat destruction, pollution, and by-catch. the loss of whales and dolphins as an untargeted victim of fishing techniques -gill nets and fish traps is probably i tell you a much bigger threat than hunting. hunting can still be a threat, and maybe in the future. right now there are things that we are doing and often... a great example is the belugas in the coast of the st. lawrence. here animals btwn canada and the us two very enlightened countries in terms of environmental concern, and yet those animals are disappearing probably because of pollution and habitat destruction, not because of hunting. 25:37
br: what is a bigger threat to baleen whales today -a hunting boat coming up or krill fisherman?
25:50 fn: i-today hunting is not a threat to large whales. the only whale being hunted today is a minke, small baleen whale, and certainly it is a threat to those minkes but not to blue whales, or humpbacks, or any of those animals. whether it is krill destruction or small fish destruction, i think that habitat threats to all of those species other than possibly minkes are not hunting, but habitat destruction and possible loss of food.
26:25
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