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Field Notes
Nicklen
Photograph by Jed Weingarten
Paul Nicklen
Interview by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

What was the best experience you had while covering this story?

I have been traveling to northern Baffin Island for more than 12 years to try and get one underwater picture of a male narwhal. Narwhals are very shy. They have a sensitive nature and excellent echolocation. You can see hundreds passing by the ice edge, but when you slip into the water, you may never see one.

Late one afternoon, I had been in the 29°F (-1.7°C) water for a couple of hours, and I was freezing so badly that my legs and arms were cramping up. I couldn’t feel my lips around my snorkel, so I just stared into the black 2,000-foot (600 meters) abyss trying not to think about how cold I was. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something bright traveling through the murky water. I turned my head, and there they were: several male narwhals, swimming in beautiful formation. I put my frozen finger on the shutter and, as I was about to take the picture, the narwhal closest to me let out a stream of bubbles. I snapped the picture in what was the most incredible moment of the assignment.

What was the worst aspect of covering this story?

I grew up on Baffin Island with the Inuit, and they’ve always been wonderful friends. It’s very special to be on the sea ice with them, laughing, talking, eating wild food, and watching nature pass us by. But I’ve always been hesitant about doing a story on narwhals because I knew that I would have to look at the issues surrounding a style of hunting that needs much improvement. Too many whales are wounded and sunk, and something has to change.

I’ve spoken with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on several occasions, but—although there are many good people in the organization—it seems that no one wants to touch this issue because it’s too politically sensitive. Hunting is an Inuit right, but both the DFO and the Inuit need to find a better way of hunting small whales.

I hated telling this story. It’s the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. I feel as if I’m betraying my friends. But at the same time I hope that, ultimately, the DFO will work with the Inuit and help them find a better way so that their kids and grandkids can continue their traditions. In the end, I told this story because it’s obvious that the narwhals do not have a voice, and I’ve done my best to fairly represent them as well as the Inuit. As a journalist, I have to tell truthful, unbiased stories of what I see, no matter how difficult it may be at times.

What was the quirkiest experience you had while covering this story?

Taking aerial photographs of the Arctic sea ice and animals is something I’ve always wanted to do. Brian Knutsen, a close friend since high school who is also a very experienced commercial pilot, came all the way from Sri Lanka to fly my new ultralight over the sea ice.

When we set off on our inaugural flight at 1 a.m., I was in the front seat with the doors off while Brian was maneuvering the dual-stick plane from the rear seat. We were flying at 1,000 feet (300 meters) and were 30 miles (50 kilometers) off the ice edge over rough and broken pack ice when the engine suddenly started to cough and die. You learn a lot about yourself in times of danger. In my mind I acknowledged that the engine had just quit, but then I thought, The light is very beautiful, so I might as well keep taking pictures—who knows how this will turn out. I think it was an avoidance strategy, just like closing your eyes when something scary is looking at you.

As we were silently gliding down toward the ice—with me snapping pictures—Brian calmly said, “You may have noticed, but we have a bit of a situation here.” Then he got the engine going and flew directly back to camp. Despite the sputtering motor, we landed safely. It turned out that the crankshaft bearings had gone.