Omaha Speaker: Ice loss threatens polar eco systems


Can you imagine a world without polar bears?

That is a distinct possibility within 100 years if we do not address the issue of climate change and its affect on the polar regions.

That was the message that Paul Nicklen, a photographer with “National Geographic,” delivered to a nearly packed audience at the Holland Performing Arts Center Tuesday. Nicklen was the first guest in the Omaha Performing Arts’ new speaker series.

Polar bears and other creatures need sea ice for survival, he said. That ice is melting away, Nicklen said.

Polar bears thrive on ring seals. These seals live under sea ice. If that food supply goes away, the bears will have to travel farther away for food sources. Polar bears have been known to swim 700 miles in open water for food.

Microorganisms also need the sea ice, Nicklen said. They provide food sources for smaller fish, which in turn, are food sources for larger creatures, etc.

The arctic faces an impending loss of the sea ice within the next decade, Nicklen said. It was once thought that it would be decades before we faced that, but recent studies indicate polar sea ice could be gone within 10 years.

With it, would be an entire eco-system, he said.

He doesn’t say these things to scare people. It’s clear that he is fighting the battle because of his love for the area and its creatures.

He grew up in the Canadian arctic, alongside the Intuits. The region is his home. No one wants to see their homeland disappear.

Prior to turning to wildlife photography, Nicklen was a biologist. He grew frustrated with the politics of climate change. He would provide data to the government, where infighting would take place on how to decipher and use the information.

He had long dreamed of working for “National Geographic.” So, with camera in hand, he applied to the magazine.

Since his early days with the magazine, he had won more than 20 international awards, including BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Nicklen uses his photography to tell the story of the disappearing polar sea ice and its affect on wildlife.

During his travels, he has seen a 10-mile span of sea ice melt away.

He shared stories about his photo assignments.

Since he photographs polar bears primarily, he has to travel to them. That means spending nights in a tent on the ice. It’s not uncommon for polar bears to come upon the camp.

One night, he heard bear breathing outside the tent. The bear stuck its head inside the tent momentarily.

“You feel like a hot dog,” Nicklen joked. The audience laughed.

Nicklen dives under the ice often.

He has sought out Beluga whales.

Two scout whales came upon him once. They are nervous and timid, so you have to pretend to be scared of them, he said. So, he acted frightened and feigned running (swimming) away.

That caught their attention and they became curious. They checked him out and then took off. They soon returned with 10-15 more Belugas. They encircled him and just checked him out.

A whale that has long been on his list of must-sees is the Bullhead. It’s the second largest whale in the water, he said.

The bullhead whale can live up to 250 years, Nicklen said. He took some great close up shots of the whale.

Sadly, loss of sea ice will affect the Bullhead whale, too, Nicklen said.

Another creature that would face potential losses is the sea lion, he said. They raise their pups on ice chunks. It allows for easy escape from a predator, Nicklen said.

If they had to raise their young on land, the creatures would be open game for predators, he said.


A neat thing about Nicklen’s photography is that he doesn’t use a telephoto lens from a thousand feet away. He gets up close to his subjects, he said.

He does his best to show the animals that he means no harm and tries to avoid disrupting them.

Once, during a polar bear mating session, he apparently got too close. As the male tried to impress the female, she kept swatting the suitor away. After a while, she must have grown bored with him and decided Nicklen and he gear were fair game. She attacked him, but ended up eating camera tripod legs, destroying the snow mobile seat and his camera bag.

Nicklen doesn’t just focus on the northern polar region. He is concerned about the future of the Antarctic, as well.

The Antarctic, with more countries sharing its borders, is more regulated and protected.

His chief concern with Antarctica is tourism. Traveling to the region to get close to penguins, sea lions, etc., continues to grow. That will endanger the animal population.


One of his favorite Antarctic assignments was photographing penguins. Specifically, he was recording how they create bubbles with their feathers under water. He was amazed at how they created the bubbles and used them for power in swimming and jumping out of the water.

And having a penguin hit you in the head jumping out of the water hurts, Nicklen said. The audience again chuckled.

He did a great job mixing humor with facts during his 80-minute presentation.

A leopard seal – fierce looking, by the way – provided some levity for him during a dive.

It approached him and showed its teeth. He was worried, but then it backed off. It soon returned with a penguin in its mouth and offered it to him. He didn’t take it. It took off again. It soon returned with another penguin. This game went on for a while, until it brought him a dead penguin. It figured surely he can accept and eat this one. Still nothing from him. It became frustrated and moved on. He did get some great pictures from the encounter.


His long-term goal has been to see a spirit bear. This is a black bear that has turned all white.

He eventually found one. He took some great photographs of the bear roaming the woods, eating and even napping.

He turned that experience into a book, “Bear: Spirit of the Wild.”

Nicklen’s current book deals with the concerns of the polar regions – “Polar Obsession.” It went into third publishing a few months after printing. It’s this book that helps him tell the stories of the polar regions and the challenges facing the eco systems.

Despite injecting humor into his talk, Nicklen’s message is clear – man needs to take the necessary steps to save the polar regions.

He acknowledged that development has to occur, including oil drilling, etc. However, there are some places in the world that man just needs to leave alone and let eco systems sustain themselves.

Whether you agree with climate change or not, the facts are the facts. Humans need to take care of the world, because if we don’t, no one else will.

DISCLOSURE: Thanks to the Omaha Performing Arts Foundation for the complimentary ticket. However, all thoughts and opinions are mine.