Story by Lissa Alexander

The world has enough pretty pictures.

That’s one of the reasons why internationally renowned wildlife and nature photographer Paul Nicklen says he’s not interested in chasing celebrated scenes of beauty for his next big project. But mainly, it’s because his work is issue driven, and he’s made it his life’s work to try and protect this planet’s rugged natural landscapes, and particularly, those delicate ecosystems under the sea.

Nicklen’s photographs are stunning and profound. He’s captured everything from the effect of tourism on the Florida Manatee to starving polar bears in the Arctic, unable to adapt to their changing landscape. Nicklen says top polar bear scientists predict this planet may lose polar bears completely in the next 100 years. 

“It’s whatever needs my attention, that’s where it’s conservation before pretty pictures,” Nicklen explains from his home in
Nanoose Bay. Nicklen is a National Geographic Photographer who has filed 18 stories for that magazine, with two more in the works. That’s a feat few can claim, as each one can take anywhere from one to three years to complete. He specializes in photographing animals in the planet’s polar
regions, and he’s often shooting in the frigid depths of the ocean, a place where he feels comfortable and even confident. “My world with animals is very consistent,” he says. “It’s not nearly as dangerous as driving on the highway.”

Although it was a close call during a dive with some Elephant Seals one time, Nicklen remembers with great fondness the time a Leopard Seal lovingly and persistently tried to feed him
penguin (check that out on YouTube).

His photographs have graced the pages of countless publications around the world and he stays very busy delivering talks around the globe, when he’s not up close and personal with a Spirit bear or a narwhal. Coming home to Nanoose Bay is always a welcomed time, where he lives nearby brother Aaron Nicklen and mother Louise Roy, two of the area’s top realtors, and two of the most important people in the world to Paul.


Grizzly Bears at Fishing Branch River with Gord MacRae and Phil Timpany and Smokey. Bears feeding on Chum Salmon before going into dens. Mid to late October.
Grizzly Bears at Fishing Branch River with Gord MacRae and Phil Timpany and Smokey. Bears feeding on Chum Salmon before going into dens. Mid to late October.

About eight years ago Paul met Cristina Mittermeier, a fellow photographer with monumental ambitions, intent on making big changes to protect the planet.  They crossed paths while working in a remote area of the Pacific called the Phoenix Islands; little did they know their lives would soon become interwoven.

Cristina is a conservationist and former marine biologist, who started taking photographs when she discovered the
unparalleled power of visual storytelling. She founded the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) when she discovered there were others like her, whose passion extended far beyond their lenses. When Cristina met Paul she was ecstatic to find that he had been working on stories surrounding climate change and conservation concerns for years. “He was working on touchy journalism subjects, and he was not identifying himself as a conservation hero,” she recalls.

Paul says Cristina coined the term “conservation photography”, although many photographers, including Ansel Adams, have worked with that purpose, she explains. Cristina galvanized many photographers and united them, in order to attain tangible conservation goals.

A tourist leans to touch a dead polar bear, a sight now seen with sad frequency in Svalbard, Norway
A tourist leans to touch a dead polar bear, a
sight now seen with sad frequency in Svalbard, Norway

“She took people like me, who work as a lone wolf,” Paul explains. “I’m a journalist, I would have never admitted to caring about the environment; that would have meant I was perceived as a tie-dyed t-shirt wearing hippy waving a banner. But no, you start to realize the power of visual storytelling and how it can be very effective in the success of conservation.”

Together Paul and Cristina’s work helped create the world’s largest marine protected area in 2008 in the Phoenix Islands. The project came to fruition thanks to the work of marine scientist Dr. Gregory Stone, and Nicklen’s photographs played an important role to help crystallize the project, says Cristina, creating an intense interest around the world. 

Paul and Cristina are now a couple, and have recently joined forces to create a global organization intent on making real changes, not just raising awareness. It’s called Sea Legacy. 


When Paul was four years old he moved to Baffin Island with his family, who were one of the only non-Inuit families living in that remote area. He spent his childhood outdoors in nature – hiking across the tundra, camping, boating, snowmobiling and hunting with his family and the Inuit.

Paul Nicklen (top left) among the Inuit children he grew up with
Paul Nicklen (top left) among the Inuit children he grew up with

When Paul was a teenager he moved with his family to Yellowknife and completed high school, before moving to Victoria to attend that city’s University. He studied biology, focusing on the marine world, and it was at that point he discovered the power of a photo. He loved scuba diving and exploring ecosystems under the sea, and sometimes, after his biology professor would draw marine invertebrates on the board, he would turn up with a photo of one in class.

“He was so in awe of my photos,” he laughs, “and so here I am all of a sudden realizing the power of a photo.”

When Paul graduated he moved back to Yellowknife and worked as a biologist, but after three years he could no longer bring himself to do it. It was incredibly frustrating, he says, particularly poking and prodding animals in the name of science, yet not sharing that data with anyone, and not having access to anyone else’s data.

“I just felt incredibly ineffective,” he explains. “And I thought if I could just bridge the gap between that important scientific research and the public, by doing stories in magazines like National Geographic, instead of infighting between the government, now you have the chance to reach 40 million people through the power of photojournalism and storytelling, and be much more effective.”

And effective he has been. Paul was recently named a National Geographic fellow, one of only a handful, for the incredible work he has done with the magazine and for the planet. The University of Victoria has also honoured him with a lifetime achievement award for his work shedding light on climate change in polar marine ecosystems.


Cristina was born in Mexico. She lived in the United States for many years and then travelled the world, working as a conservation biologist with an emphasis on marine issues. She was interested in conservation and biology long before she picked up a camera, but she realized its power as a communication tool early on. After the birth of her second child, Juliana (who now attends Kwalikum Secondary School), she went back to night school to take up photography, but she learned much more — particularly how photography could be used as a tool for cultural change. She worked for Conservation International as the Director of Communications, stationed in places like the Amazon, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and India. Over her career she has travelled to over 100 countries.

Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen
Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen

In 2005 Cristina realized that a large amount of money was needed to fund conservation communications projects in order to spread awareness and catalyze change. And that’s when the International League of Conservation Photographers was born.

“It was such a good idea that in a few years we were raising $2 million for these projects a year,” she recalls. “All of a sudden it became crystal clear in the eyes of so many that you cannot catalyze conservation action unless people have emotional investment and emphatic communications.”

Today Cristina is an award-winning photographer, a celebrated public speaker (including a widely-viewed TEDx event on the subject of “Enoughness”), she runs her own publishing company, and is a published author, including a prominent coffee table book called Sublime Nature, published by National Geographic, along with 22 others.

Paul and Cristina have worked together on a number of stories for
National Geographic, along with other projects like the RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) they conducted in the Flathead River Valley of B.C.
For that project they brought in 10 leading photographers from around the world to document the development in the area.

The images were used as a tool to inform the BC government on the effects of coal mining.  In partnership with local environmental groups including the Sierra Club, the RAVE helped ban coal mining from the headwaters of the Flathead.

Paul and Cristina have recently launched the largest conservation photography competition in the world called Por el Planeta, which gives away $300,000 in cash prizes. Its emphasis, not surprisingly, is on biodiversity, conservation and storytelling.

The couple also takes donors on incredible adventures, something they hope to do increasingly with Sea Legacy, taking people to pristine areas of the world in order to help fund their conservation goals. They have previously travelled with actor Tommy Lee Jones, Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albright, Laurene Jobs (Steve Jobs’ widow), English businessman Richard Branson and his family, and many others.


Sea Legacy focuses on three main areas: climate change,
conservation — including the creation of marine protected parks — and coastal peoples.

“For us the ocean is such an important engine of life, it produces 50 per cent of all the oxygen we breathe, produces food for one billion people around world —we don’t have another 50 years to fiddle around while the foundation of our planet is destroyed,” Cristina explains.

The organization is made up of many of the world’s top photojournalists, and will soon be designated a Canadian charity.

The couple is currently seeking donors to help them continue their important projects.

“We want to engage the local community,” says Paul. “People who get it. People who are surrounded by this incredible ecosystem and get why it’s important. We would be honoured if they support us.”

Sizeable donations will allow donors to embark on a journey of a lifetime with Paul and Cristina.

Visit www.sealegacy.org and stay connected to the cause. Because we all need to pay attention to what’s happening around us, says Paul.

“If we can’t save bears can we really save ourselves?”

Visit their websites to view their work and learn more:
www.paulnicklen.com and www.cristinamittermeier.com.