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The Antarctic Wilderness, Home to Emperor Penguins and Leopard Seals

The Photographer’s Story Paul Nicklen
A penguin leaving the water releases millions of bubbles from its feathers, gaining speed to avoid the leopard seals waiting to ambush it. Fast and agile, the penguins can dive up to 500 metres deep, and remain underwater for 20 minutes on a single breath

I go to Antarctica almost every year, and one of my most recent visits was spent photographing emperor penguins. I grew up in Arctic Canada, where I’d camp on the sea ice with Inuit, and I’m always trying to bring attention to the polar wildlife and ecosystems that I’m passionate about. I lived on the remote Ross Sea for a month, documenting emperor penguins as they went out to sea for up to three weeks at a time to catch fsh and krill for their chicks back in the colony. I wanted to go where nobody else was – under the ice with them. During the day, I’d spend hours down in the -1.5°C waters as they swam around me, and at night I’d shoot above ground in the delicate light. It was fantastic, though not without risks. On the third day I was attacked by a leopard seal – it few out of the water two metres high and hit me in the face, stunning us both. It was a tough decision to go back underwater after that. Initially, I was also worried that the penguins would be scared of me, but they were very curious, and wonderful to work with. The frst night, I had about 20 in my camp, calling – it was beautiful. That’s the best thing about Antarctica – in the Arctic, if you can get within 200m of a polar bear you’re lucky, but here, nothing’s scared of you. Antarctica is a very rich, intact ecosystem. It’s one of my favourite places.

PAUL NICKLEN is a Canadian-born photographer and marine biologist who specialises in documenting oceans and polar regions. See more of his photography at paulnicklen.com.

No-one’s quite sure why emperor penguins have stand-offs like this – the social dynamics in a colony are complex. The chicks are huddling together for warmth, waiting for their parents to return from sea
Above This is what a penguin’s surfacing looks like from above water. They often get as much as a metre and a half in the air, landing quite hard on the ice and knocking the air out of themselves
Above Though it looks angry, this penguin is just staring, trying to assess me. The penguins were so curious – when I lay still they’d come and pull my sunglasses off, chew on the lens or take my hat
Above The penguins walk six miles from the shore back to the colony, a hard journey over constantly changing ice. They always follow each other in single fle – they wait for a good leader and off they go
The penguins prefer to travel on their bellies, speeding like a toboggan over the ice. When they were upright, I could walk much faster; but on their bellies, I couldn’t keep up


Antarctica can be visited from October to March. Go early in the season to see penguins court and move between sea and colony; from late December to February to witness hatching season; and in March for lively colonies and good whale-watching. Discover the World’s Classic Antarctica Cruise visits the Antarctic Peninsula, home to gentoo, chinstrap and Adélie penguins, plus seals, whales and other wildlife (from £3,500 excl fights; discover-the-world. co.uk). Wildlife Worldwide has a voyage to the remote Weddell Sea to visit an emperor penguin colony (from £7,670 incl helicopter ride, excl fights; wildlifeworldwide.com). Most trips embark from Ushuaia in Argentina, reached via one or two stops from various UK cities (from £800; aireuropa.com).

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February 2016

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