01/24/2015 12:00 EST | Updated 03/26/2015 05:59 EDT

National Geographic's Paul Nicklen calls Hawaii surf culture 'most difficult assignment'

National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen is used to working in extreme conditions, but says he was not prepared for how tough it was to document Hawaii's traditional surf culture.

His images, part of a feature called "Pure Hawaiian", run in the February issue of National Geographic magazine, are stunning — but capturing them put Nicklen well out of his comfort zone.

"I do wildlife photography for a reason," he told On The Island's Gregor Craigie.

"When you have a 350-pound Samoan Hawaiian who's not very pleased to see you... We worked in an area where we're generally not welcome."

Nicklen said he was sent on the assignment because he's a Canadian, and the region includes areas where mainland Americans typically aren't welcome.

Nevertheless, his citizenship didn't prove a magic bullet when it came to gaining the locals' trust.

"I was sort of miserable thinking this story was going downhill fast," he recalls. "And finally we just took a leap of faith and headed up the west side and it was very much a closed culture."

Nicklen said he kept his cameras in his bag for the first two weeks, just talking to people and learning about the culture.

"They really warmed up to us and then — it was their idea — they were like, 'Are you going to take pictures of us or what?'"

Nicklen said while on assignment, he watched incredibly skilled surfers out on the waves at all times of day or night.

"It's not about the money, it's not about the glitz, it's not about the bathing suits or the surfboard, or the brands. When you hang out with people from's just they have an obsession — they have salt water running through their veins."

To hear the full interview with Paul Nicklen, click the audio labelled: Paul Nicklen photographs Hawaiian surf traditions.