Penguin Photo Takes the Prize

“Bubble Jetting Emperors,” by Paul Nicklen. The image earned Nicklen the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.


By Glenn Oeland

There are some National Geographic photographers whose work never fails to dazzle even the most jaded eye. One of them is Paul Nicklen.

Maybe it was his childhood among Arctic hunters in the far north of Canada, or perhaps it was his later training in wildlife science. Whatever its source, Paul has an uncommon gift for achieving intimacy with wild creatures—whether his subject is a secretive spirit bear in British Columbia or an aggressive leopard seal in Antarctica.

Paul’s way with wildlife, and his genius with a camera, received international acclaim a few nights ago at London’s Natural History Museum, where Nicklen was named 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year. The annual competition draws thousands of entries from photographers around the world.

Paul’s winning image shows an entourage of emperor penguins racing through an icy sea, leaving so many bubbles in their wakes the water column looks carbonated. In Paul’s signature style, the picture puts the viewer in the thick of the action, and leaves one exclaiming to friends: “Only a penguin could have made that shot!”

If memory serves, Paul first pitched the idea of a story on emperor penguins as long ago as 2006. Inspired by the blockbuster feature film March of the Penguins, his idea was to show a side of the birds’ existence moviegoers didn’t see: their secret lives below the surface of the frozen sea. A string of other assignments, plus the daunting challenges of planning an expedition to Antarctica, kept pushing the story off into the future. When at last the coverage came together, Paul braved water barely warmer than ice to bring back images of a magical but dangerous realm few of us will ever be fortunate enough to see in person.

“Paul’s underwater images broke new ground,” says photo editor Sadie Quarrier. “This was the first story I was lucky enough to edit with Paul, but after seeing his previous stories, I knew he would bring back something special. When he emailed me his favorite dozen images as a taster from the field, I was stunned and immediately called Editor Chris Johns. We are all excited to see what Paul will do next. His award is so well deserved.”

Paul was particularly keen to showcase one of the emperors’ most amazing adaptations: the use of bubbles to boost their speed. As reported in the November issue of National Geographic, the emperor’s dense feathers seal out water and trap air in a downy underlayer. When released, the air coats the bird in lubricating bubbles that reduce friction and supercharge its swimming.

While Paul prides himself on getting up close and personal with his wild subjects, the appeal of sharing close quarters with a pack of noisy penguins can wear thin. “The first night in camp, the penguins followed me home,” Paul told Geographic staffer Luna Shyr. “They stood outside and bugled all night. By the third night . . . the romanticism began to wane.”