Human Journey

Behind the Photo: Paul Nicklen’s Leaping Penguins

Come up with any caption you want, only Paul Nicklen knows what was really going on. (Photo by Paul Nicklen)

When you see a photo like Paul Nicklen’s shot of leaping penguins above, it’s not difficult for a narrative to form. The photo is so clear and action-packed that it feels suited for a caption contest or a Far Side cartoon.

But there is a real story behind the photo, and the man behind the camera has it.

“I was in the Ross Sea in Antarctica working on a National Geographic story about emperor penguins. I was photographing the penguins launching themselves onto the ice from the water. I would point my camera at one spot, wait, and then ten penguins would fly up to the right, six to the left, and one would fly over me—it was extremely hard to get a good shot. It became quite comical to see hundreds of penguins flying out of the water and knocking the air out of themselves when they landed on their bellies. I felt a little bit sorry for them, but they were fine. This is what their bodies are designed to do. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my career,” Nicklen said.

He spent his childhood in an isolated Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. He’s learned the ways of survival on the ice, and has come to know the animals that thrive in it.

As a photographer, Paul routinely spends months braving extreme conditions to get unforgettable images of the world’s most remote places and their inhabitants. He’s traveled deep into the forests of British Columbia to track the ghostly and elusive spirit bear, and has gone face-to-face under Arctic ice with emperor penguins, polar bears, and surprisingly dangerous walruses.

If you’re in New York, you can join Paul Nicklen as he shares his stories of adventure, photography, and conservation live at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on February 4. He’ll tell more stories about what goes on behind the pages of National Geographic Magazine with video and photos from his wild explorations.

For more information or to buy tickets, please visit National Geographic Live’s event page.

Caroline Gerdes recently graduated from Louisiana State University where she studied journalism and history (her major and minor, respectively). As a native of the Greater New Orleans Area, she decided to explore her own backyard with help from a Young Explorers Grant. Caroline is currently conducting an oral history project about the New Orleans Ninth Ward. She seeks to record the community’s full history — its immigrant beginnings, the development of jazz, the depression and prohibition, desegregation and hurricanes. Caroline’s exploration is also a personal quest as her father and paternal grandparents grew up in the Ninth Ward. Her blogs reflect an inside look at New Orleans life and culture, especially the edible aspects.
  • Yong Choi

    Fresh and Amazing!

  • Georgi Purlikov

    black and white on the rocks

  • brandy roice

    Pilot to tower, cleared for landing on runway iceberg.

  • brandy roice

    For me, if you’re willing to do just a little research, there is something pretty amazing about any and all animals. When you understand how these penguins have to live, because of the isolation, the cold, the distance to food, and the way they have to parent, its amazing they exist at all!

  • Maria Manuela Xu


  • Jhon Fustin

    Nice picture but it’s over-saturated!

  • Lognoul Michèle

    Magnifique !

  • E C Parrish

    Angry Birds game anyone?

  • jed

    That was nice, thank You.

  • ellen

    a truly amazing video and commentary…thank you for your photography and dedication.

  • preston gibson

    Ref: sentence regarding arctic ice … polar bears and walruses are found in arctic waters; penguins are found in antarctic watets.

    Antarctic predators of pengins include orcas (killer whales) and leopard seals.

  • Carolyn


  • Wendy Csaszar-Roman

    Absolutely Amazing!

  • Sandra Brown

    I wish I were you!!! So, so beautiful!!!

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