SAN DIEGO — Flip Nicklin was submerged in icy water among a group of narwhals when one of them suddenly turned and pointed its nine-foot-long tusk directly at him.
Nicklin could feel clicks from the 3,000-pound whale's echolocation system pulsing on his chest, and he began to think uneasy thoughts: that he had gone too far this time, that he had inadvertently violated some natural code that he might now have to pay for with his life.
But instead of attacking him, the narwhal turned away and resumed a bloody battle with other male narwhals nearby. Nicklin continued to photograph the rare Arctic whales, and when he surfaced a few minutes later, he not only had the first underwater pictures of narwhals fighting each other, but had all of his organs and limbs intact, too.
"In that situation you just hope you haven't screwed up" by trying to get too close to the animals, Nicklin said. But nagging fear is just one of the inconveniences the 38-year-old photographer has put up with in 10 years of photographing whales all over the world.
Most photographers take pictures of whales when the giant mammals appear briefly on the ocean's surface. Nicklin specializes in photographing whales underwater.
He has taken pictures of blue whales near Sri Lanka and right whales off the coast of Argentina. He has dived with gray whales near Vancouver Island and has stood on the ocean bottom near Hawaii as humpback whales floated upside down in the water above him, singing their powerful, haunting songs.
His photographs appear regularly in National Geographic and include many photographic "firsts." His pictures often are beautiful or awe-inspiring, but they are also scientifically revealing: They show how whales look in their natural environment.
"The idea is to photograph a whale doing something it would be doing if you weren't around," he said.
Nicklin, a native San Diegan and Clairemont High School graduate who now lives in La Jolla, learned to scuba dive when he was 14. As a young man he worked as a diving instructor at the Diving Locker, a Pacific Beach retail store owned by his family.
But taking pictures of oceangoing mammals the size of recreational vehicles was still a long way from his mind when a couple of photographers from National Geographic signed up for his diving course in 1972. Four years later, he served as a diving instructor on a National Geographic expedition to the Leeward Islands.
"But I still didn't want any part of photographing whales underwater," Nicklin said. "It seemed crazy."
Prolonged exposure to both photographers and whales changed his mind, and after serving as an assistant photographer on several National Geographic assignments, he began working for the magazine on his own.
Since then, Nicklin has taken underwater photographs of a dozen species of whales, including killer whales and baleen whales such as gray whales and humpback whales. But his favorites are sperm whales.
"Baleen whales are great, but they're weird-looking," he said, referring to the huge, grotesque plates that baleen whales use to strain small fish and crustaceans from the water. "Sperm whales have teeth--it's like Moby Dick come to life."
Part of his affinity stems from an encounter he had with a 35-foot female sperm whale near Sri Lanka in 1984.
"I dove under her to get a picture, but she dove, too, and I thought I'd spooked her. But she came back up right next to me.
"I swam up next to her eye--it was wide open--and touched her. There was nothing else to do, so I went down her back sort of scratching it as I went. . . ." That incident resulted in spectacular close-ups of the huge creature swimming near the ocean's surface.
Nicklin conceded that the first few times he got into the water to take portraits of whales, he was intimidated by their enormous size. "Now it's not terrifying at all, but there are moments" that are uncertain if not downright hair-raising, he said.
"They're so big, they have the potential to mess up and do something to you without even trying. . . . You never really know what's going to happen. But I figure if the animal isn't doing something weird or aggressive, I'm probably all right. Most of the time I'm more concerned about getting a good picture."
Nicklin takes most of his pictures near the surface, but he once dove to a depth of 130 feet to photograph singing humpback whales off Lanai, in the Hawaiian Islands. Humpbacks assume an unusual posture when they sing, hanging upside down in the water with their pectoral fins out and their tails at or near the surface, and Nicklin and a partner got the first shots ever of the singing whales--from beneath them.
The humpbacks' songs consist of powerful whistles, screeches and hums. "You can feel it as much as hear it," Nicklin said, "especially when you're in the water underneath them. It's like being inside a kettle drum."