LAHAINA – When Flip (nicknamed after a character in the 1940s comic strip “Terry and the Pirates”) left his father’s dive shop in San Diego for Maui decades back, he sought adventure and a way to make a living.
For Charles “Flip” Nicklin – today “widely regarded as the premier whale photographer in the world,” according to National Geographic – the connection with these massive giants of the sea goes way back.
His great, great grandfather arrived on the West Coast on a whaling ship.
Mother and calf humpback whales swim together off the coast of Maui. PHOTO BY FLIP NICKLIN/MINDEN PICTURES (NMFS Permit #753).
His father, who he has always called “Chuck” because that is his name, was not only a dive shop owner but a world-class cinema-photographer who came to Maui 39 years ago for a shoot.
Flip as a young man tagged along as a deckhand on a whale research ship and was mentored by National Geographic ace underwater photographers Bate Littlehales and Jonathan Blair, who taught him about lenses and light.
Flip took photos alongside them, and as a beginning photographer, got three of his photos published in the magazine. This was a follow-up to the $10 he received from a kid’s magazine for his first published photo.
Flip may flip over when he is on one of his 60-second dives, but he has never flipped careers. He has been photographing whales and dolphins since 1976 for fun and pay.
In free dives as deep as 100 feet, Flip takes several deep breaths and has just 60 seconds under water to click off his photos. One of 500 shots is a keeper, he told some 200 people at a recent Whale Trust Maui talk story session.
By free diving with only a small air tank for emergencies, the free-diving photographer generates no bubbles “that would change the whole human to whale dynamic,” he wrote in the handsomely illustrated book “Among Giants: A Life with Whales.”
Flip often partners with research pioneer Jim Darling in a three-boat armada of sorts. Darling has “the singing boat,” because he researches whale songs.
Megan Jones-Gray, one of the Whale Trust Maui founders with Nicklin, operates out of the “female boat” for research on female behavior. Flip and videographers work out of “the video boat.”
Flip met his wife, Linda, a naturalist, when both were lecturing on a whale cruise – trips they take when not doing research.
This month, the two departed for Alaska, their permanent home, so Linda can work studying bears and other animals as part of her work. When not in Alaska or Maui, Flip has traveled the world from the Arctic to Antarctica, Florida to Maui.
Along Kaanapali this year, the 10,000 whales that travel here each year seem to be getting better. There are more frequent shows than ever.
There is so much to report on what whale researchers now know that a series of columns do not scratch the surface. Talks at the whaling museum at Whalers Village can fill the gaps.
New fascinating fact: humpback males singing can reach up to 160 decibels, equivalent to the noise made by a jet engine.
Flip straps on his long lens camera and carries one every time he is on the water – even on a whale watch for visitors.
You never know when you are going to get the breach shot of a lifetime.
Columnist’s Notework: This profile is based on interviews and presentations involving Nicklin and others, his book, and an article by Stephen Frink in “Alert Diver” magazine. Next column: saving entangled whales.