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Behind The Shot: Paul Nicklen Tells The Story Of A Surreal Encounter With Whales

When Sony Artisan and Sea Legacy Co-Founder Paul Nicklen gets completely lost in the moment as a photographer, that’s when he knows things are really good. “I really don’t know who I am, where I am, what I am,” he explains. That's exactly what happened as he was photographing the sperm whales in Dominica, including a curious calf getting a little too closer for comfort. In this video, Nicklen shares his experience being in the water with these incredible creatures as he shot stills and video with his Sony Alpha 1 and Sony 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master, .

Nicklen details the surreal underwater experience. “The pod is swimming along, and all of a sudden the whales just disappear. And I slipped into the water, and there they were: the entire pod motionless, vertically in the water. Loading long, slow inhales, longer exhales, dumping my CO2. Knowing my inability to hold my breath is the defining factor for whether I’m going to come back with a beautiful image or not.”

If you know Nicklen, he’s not one to miss the shot. He packs his lungs full of air and free dives down to photograph the whales. “They’re not moving at all,” he says. “It’s like being immersed inside a museum of giants. Sleeping giants.”

As the whales find their buoyancy by blowing bubbles from their blowholes, Nicklen notices the squid tentacles hanging out of the mouth of one of the female sperm whales. “These adults will sit there for up to an hour, sound asleep – resting, recovering from deep diving for squid. These whales are turning off one half of their brain while the other half of the brain is awake.”

He’s able to swim around the group of whales to photograph without disturbing them, as if they’ve fully accepted his presence. “You don’t know where you are,” he says. “Your left brain has been turned off. You’re not thinking about f-stops, focal lengths, the technical aspects. You are in disbelief that you are witnessing something so powerful and so beautiful. And by the time the scene ends, you’re emotionally spent.”

As he starts to drift up to the surface, he notices an active baby calf confidently approaching him. She makes contact with Nicklen, rolling around him, mouthing his camera and even trying to chew on his head. “As my adrenaline falls faster, I pull away, but somehow I end up inside her mouth, her jaw flapping around me. And just when I’m completely out of air, she decides to back off. At that moment I am probably the luckiest person on the planet, to witness something so beautiful.”

See more videos like this one on the Alpha Universe YouTube Channel.


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