‘The man who rode a whale:’ Chuck Nicklin, pioneering underwater diver and photographer, dies at 95

‘The man who rode a whale:’ Chuck Nicklin, pioneering underwater diver and photographer, dies at 95

Chuck Nicklin, a pioneering underwater diver and photographer whose work appeared in national magazines, Hollywood movies and television documentaries, died at his La Jolla home on Dec. 7. He was 95.

His credits included assignments for National Geographic and camera work for “The Abyss,” “The Deep,” and two James Bond films, “For Your Eyes Only” and “Never Say Never Again.”

His biggest legacy may be the mentoring he provided other soon-to-be giants in undersea photography — Marty Snyderman, Howard Hall, Nicklin’s son Flip, and others — after the store he helped open in San Diego, The Diving Locker, became a mecca for like-minded explorers from around the world.

“When you are competing for work in National Geographic or Hollywood, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and a lot of people there are wary of newcomers, but Chuck was not like that,” said Eric Hanauer, a longtime friend and fellow photographer. “He let people in.”

Charles Richardson Nicklin Jr. was born Sept. 4, 1927, near Worcester, Mass. His father was in the Navy. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, the elder Nicklin got ordered to San Diego. His son, then 14, didn’t want to go.

“They had to drag me here,” he told the Union-Tribune in a 2016 interview.

The place quickly grew on him, though — in particular the waters off Point Loma and La Jolla. He started diving in the late 1940s, in a crude mask with no snorkel.

The first time he tried an underwater breathing device — a gas mask attached to a bottle of oxygen — he tied a rope around his waist, gave the other end to his father and said, “If you see me stop moving around, pull me in.”

Despite the technical limitations, he loved diving. He was managing a grocery store in Logan Heights, but when he wasn’t stocking shelves and helping customers, he was free diving, hunting fish and abalone. He once speared a black sea bass that weighed 376 pounds.

Underwater photographer Chuck Nicklin at work

Chuck Nicklin at work.

(Flip Nicklin)

Some of the people he met while diving — Conrad Limbaugh, Jim Stewart, Wheeler North and others — worked at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In 1959, they decided to open a dive shop and wanted someone with retail experience to run it. They hired Nicklin.

The Diving Shop opened on June 15, 1959 — one day after a shark killed a diver in La Jolla Cove. Business was not exactly brisk. “For a while, we didn’t sell much except copies of Skin Diver magazine,” Nicklin later told the Union-Tribune. “People were really afraid.”

In time, the store became a go-to place in the budding world of underwater adventures. It offered diving classes, equipment repair and dive trips.

Jacques Cousteau stopped by one day, according to an account Nicklin shared with Hanauer, and poked his head into a classroom. The most famous undersea explorer of all said, “This is your introduction to the ocean. I hope it’s as good for you as it is for me.”

One of the other Diving Lockers partners was a photographer for Convair and introduced Nicklin to underwater shooting. They built a darkroom in the back of the store. On trips, they would trade a Rolleimarine camera with a 12-exposure roll of film: Six for you, six for me.

In January 1963, Nicklin was in a boat with friends, headed for undersea canyons off La Jolla, when they saw several spouts from a Bryde’s whale. It was entangled in a gill net. Nicklin went into the water and climbed on the whale to free it. A friend snapped photos.

“There are points in your life where everything changes,” he later told the Union-Tribune. “One of the biggest changes in my life happened when I became the man who rode a whale.”

One of the pictures ran in the San Diego Union, then in Time magazine. Nicklin was invited to appear on the TV show “To Tell the Truth.” And National Geographic, assuming he must be some kind of cetacean specialist, hired him to shoot pictures for an upcoming feature.

Before too long, he was traveling around the world for magazine assignments and movie shoots. He dove in the waters off every continent, including Antarctica. There were also commercial jobs for a Mexican beer company, Olympic synchronized swimmers, and others.

That lifestyle took a toll on his first marriage, to Gloria Crosthwaite, and it ended in divorce in 1970. He was single for about 20 years — Cosmopolitan magazine once named him its Bachelor of the Month — before marrying again. Rosalind Nicklin survives him, at their home in La Jolla.

When he was in his 60s, Nicklin began taking divers on trips to Cozumel, the Philippines and other exotic locales, and he was still going into the water when he was in his 90s.

“He loved people,” Flip Nicklin said, “and people loved him.”

In addition to his wife and son (who lives near Juneau, Alaska), survivors include a stepdaughter, Heather Bailey Anzaldo of Los Angeles, daughter-in-law Cynthia Nicklin of Pacific Beach, and a granddaughter, Grace Elizabeth Nicklin, also of Pacific Beach. Another son, Terry Nicklin, died in September.

A Celebration of Life is scheduled for Saturday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pacific Beach chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5151 Fanuel St.