National Geographic photographers on job that's made them conservation stars

Last Updated Mar 1, 2018 12:41 PM EST

BRITISH COLUMBIA, Canada  -- Only on "CBS This Morning," National Geographic Adventure is revealing its eight most inspiring "Adventures of the Year." They're chosen for embodying the spirit of adventure in groundbreaking ways. 

Two of them did so as a couple. Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier are photographers. They met in the cafeteria of National Geographic's headquarters. Their dramatic images of the natural world have won millions of social media followers, turning them into conservation superstars. 

"I think this year, we've been home less than two months," Mittermeier said. "But, you know, because we work together, home is wherever we are."

"I think there was a song about that," Nicklen said jokingly. 

From pole to pole, and just about every place in between, Nicklen and Mittermeier have used their cameras to give nature a face -- whether human or otherwise. All of their photographs are taken to serve the same three goals.

"Art, science and conservation," Nicklen said. "It's gotta be beautiful, it's gotta teach you something and it's gotta make you care." 

Those three elements came together in heart-wrenching fashion this past December when the couple released a video of a starving polar bear on social media. They photographed it on a recent arctic expedition and it was viewed more than 30 million times on National Geographic's social media and web platforms. 

"You can keep reminding people of data and science that climate change is happening and that polar bears are going to ultimately disappear, but at some point, you have to slap people in the face and just say, 'This is what's happening, this is what climate change looks like,'" Nicklen said. 

"Everybody that saw that video, that saw those photographs, we recognize the fear and the pain that we're feeling about climate change in this animal and that's why it probably galvanized public attention," Mittermeier added. 

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Along with the serious intent that drives their work, their photographic expeditions are filled with inspiring encounters. 

"It's one of my, probably, my favorite things on this planet to do, is to swim with leopard seals," Nicklen said. "I took Christina down there last year and she jumped in the water, and that's when I knew Christina was the girl for me 'cause there are not many people who are going to stick it out with that animal!" 

Asked what it was like facing the "jaws of the beast," Mittermeier responded: "She's just letting you know that this is her territory, you know, and if you wanna be here, you're going to play by her rules." 

According to Nicklen, a seal tried to feed him during their expedition. 

"Realizing that I couldn't catch a live penguin, she started to bring me tired penguins, exhausted penguins," he explained. "And she's just staring at me with this dejected look on her face that I'm this useless animal in her ocean who's going to starve to death. She's trying to feed me penguins and take care of me." 

Nicklen and Mittermeier take care of each other in the field, but they also complement each other. While Nicklen specializes in wildlife at the frozen ends of the Earth, Mittermeier captures the lives of indiginous people all over the world.

"You just know that they have been watching the same place, the same tide, the same sea ice form for hundreds of years and so they know things that even the best scientists don't know," she said.

The pair comes away with more than just images. They see each expedition as an opportunity to learn something new as they did on a recent trip to remote parts of Hawaii.

"Sitting there with these powerful Polynesian, Hawaiian surfers on the beach and, you know, they would be out looking across the water and they said, 'You know, we never realized that we were poor until somebody from the mainland came over and told us,'" Nicklen said. 

For Nicklen and Mittermeier, that perspective makes life richer and makes the job worth every moment. 

"It's failing 98 percent of the time, being miserable most of the time, and being patient. Believing in yourself, believing in the process and chasing that story," Nicklen said. "And that makes it rewarding." 

"And you have to love the adventure of it," Mittermeier added. 

Love and adventure. This couple has plenty of both.