Photographing Penguins Under Ice

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Climate change and the environment are personal issues for Canadian Paul Nicklen. He began his career as a biologist tracking polar bears. Now he's a wildlife photographer. He just won the prestigious Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. It's for a picture he took underwater of emperor penguins bursting through a hole in the ice off Antarctica. You can see it at Nicklen says he had early training for working in the cold.

Paul Nicklen: When I was four years old my parents moved from Saskatchewan to a tiny Inuit community on the southern end of Baffin Island up by Greenland, and we lived with, I think, in the community there were 190 Inuit people. The ice and the snow were my sandbox. I fell through the ice as a kid, I went under the ice into the water and used to pull myself out. As an adult now, when I'm up on the ice I'm so comfortable, I can read the ice, understand the ice. I feel like I'm with the Inuit out there, or I'm one of them. So I've been very lucky with my upbringing which gave me the foundation to do what I do today.

Werman: What he does is photograph nature, very close up. Like when he got that shot of the penguins.

Nicklen: The best way to get this shot was to go in the water, just with a snorkel so there's no bubbles, there's nothing, no noise. I'd take my legs and I would lock them underneath the ice and I'd lock them into the ice. And then I wouldn't move for sometimes an hour. And you'd wait and you'd wait, and you're freezing, and there's nothing to see, there's nothing to see, and all of a sudden in the distance, because it's so clear, you see these specks coming at you. And those are the penguins coming in from the open ocean. They've been at sea for three weeks, and I thought that they were going to freak out. And they came in very nervous at first, they come in very curious of what you are, but within a second they know that you're not a threat. I had emperor penguins that weighed 30 kilos sitting on top of my head, I had them on my back, I had them jumping on my back to get onto the ice. I had them, in this picture, that one, that's an emperor penguin that's floating. It's actually leaning, resting against the side of my head as I'm floating there, it's floating against my head. So I actually used it to frame the picture. I could use it as a piece of art as it's sitting there looking at me, preening itself. And then all the other penguins started coming in and it's just a matter of shooting a lot of pictures and watching the moment unfold.

Werman: Paul Nicklen says he wants to do more than just make pretty pictures.

Nicklen: I used to be a scientist, I'm a biologist by training, and I love biology and I love photography. But I felt helpless as a biologist. Biology wasn't allowing me to communicate. We would go out and tag so many polar bears and come back with data sheets, and we were ineffective. So I thought, if I could only bridge the gap between good science, important science, and the public by using photography to tell a story that will really resonate with people. It's about telling stories. We need journalism. Right now, with the current state of the planet, if we are just shooting pretty pictures then we're just fiddling while Rome burns. We need to be doing conservation driven stories. We need to at least be doing stories that have a message or have a story or are educating people and I think that's what excites me the most about this, about being a photographer is being a storyteller more so than just taking pretty pictures.

Werman: Canadian nature photographer Paul Nicklen. See his prize-winning photo, Bubble Jetting Emperors, at