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Field Notes
mother and yearling
Photograph by Flip Nicklin
Flip Nicklin

What was your best experience during this assignment?

It was exciting to work with the mother and yearling and to be there just when they were getting ready to separate. In 12 weeks, we had three or four days when the situation was perfect: The whales' behavior was interesting, and they were tolerant of us being there. They sort of glowed; they get a bluish-gray color that makes them look silver underwater. And they were so calm. The mother was relaxed, and the calf was curious. There was such a feeling of tenderness when the 45-foot (14 meters) mother and the 24-foot (7 meters) calf were nose-to-nose and behaving so gently toward each other. It just makes you think good things about whales.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

The hardest part for me was when author Doug Chadwick and his wife came out. They only had two weeks to work. We tried to get out every day to see the breathholding whales and the females without calves, but it rained and was windy and nasty for the entire two weeks. It was tough having to go to Doug every morning and say "not today" when he had such limited time. But wouldn't you know it, the weather changed the day after he left. It was beautiful for ten days.

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

I retired after I photographed "Killer Whales"—which came out in the April 2005 issue of National Geographic—because I wanted to work more with whale researchers. I had been doing photography assignments for National Geographic for 30 years and decided that I wanted to do more research work in Alaska and Hawaii. Editor in Chief Chris Johns asked if the magazine could still follow what I was doing and came up with a way that would not only support the research and allow me to work as a researcher but that would also shape a nice article. And the support from the magazine went to the research project rather than to me as pay. It felt good to give something back to the people who I've made my living off for so many years. It was a nice way to make the transition from photographer to researcher.