Capturing the Wild Power of the Sea

Photographer Paul Nicklen first draws our attention with awesome images, then inspires us to care.

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

It was a photograph of the invertebrate fauna off of Victoria, British Columbia. It wasn't a great photo, but when I showed it to my professor, who was a world authority on marine invertebrate biology, he was truly awed by what the image showed. Despite being an expert, he had never gone diving in this area and only knew animals from specimens. The power of this image to reveal a beautiful, unknown world to an expert blew me away, and I knew I wanted to use this tool to show the wonders of the sea to as many people as possible.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I always dreamed of being a fighter pilot, just for the love of flying. I would never want to go into combat, but I would lose myself in the beauty of flight at Mach 2. I fly ultralight airplanes today, and it feeds my soul.

This rare mama Kermode bear climbed a tree to feast on a bumper crop of crab apples in Canada's Great Bear Rainforest.

Who is your greatest influence?

In photography, David Doubilet has set the bar so high in underwater photography that I can only hope to achieve a fraction of what he has achieved, and I very much look up to him. In conservation, the greatest influencers are people like Joel Sartore and Cristina Mittermeier, who have taught me how to use my voice and camera to make a positive contribution to a better planet. In terms of how to live my life, my mother, Louise Roy, has taught me how to have joy in life and how to guide my actions by compassion and empathy. Finally, I truly admire my dear friend Gregory Colbert. He is a visionary and an artist, and his work has had enormous influence over my career decisions.

A humpback whale fin surfaces in the northern fjords of Norway.

What fuels your passion for photography?

The opportunity to tell stories that connect people to nature in an emotional way

What is the perfect photograph?

A photo that sucks somebody in with awe and beauty and then inspires action or teaches something—and especially one that creates an emotional response.

Coastal wolf cubs play off the coast of British Colombia.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

The one item I can’t be without is my camera. Everything else is trivial.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

Learn to seek out a good, honest critique of your work. Be willing to grow. Learn from others. Learn to listen, ask questions, be grateful, and, more importantly, shoot often and shoot a lot. Love to tell an important story with your camera. Most importantly, enjoy the journey, no matter what stage of your career you are at.

Just after dawn two sisters and their cousin head into the surf at Makaha Beach in Hawaii to warm up before a competition. Participating from an early age in this ancient sport of Hawaiian chiefs teaches children to take pride in the culture they’ve inherited.

In our series "Through the Lens," we get to know the photographers behind some of the unforgettable images showcased on National Geographic.

Nicklen’s work is featured in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Check out more of his work here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.