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Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | Lost and In Love with an Icy Wonderland

October 30, 2022

This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Paul Nicklen.

“I had a dream when I was 22 that someday I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the Earth.― Ernest Shackleton

“Ephemeral Palace”

I have spent much time talking about my love of the Arctic; mostly because I grew up there and spent the majority of my life trekking through its rugged landscapes. And yet, for all my experience, the Arctic remains one of the more challenging places to photograph. So much of its wildlife has been hunted to distraction, forcing animals to avoid people whenever and wherever they can. I can spend weeks- even months- hunkered in a blind through sleet and snow for that one pristine moment– whether it’s a polar bear or muskox. But we do not grow when things are easy; we grow when we face challenges.

Antarctica, at the other edge of the world, is easily my favorite place on the planet to photograph, though it has its own contrasting challenges. The animals here are unafraid, bold, and curious, having experienced little contact with humans over time. It can become all too easy for a photographer to grow complacentespecially when your subjects have such little regard for boundaries.

Leopard Seal by Paul Nicklen Copyright
A leopard seal drifts on sea ice.

The next challenge presented is the overwhelming atmosphere and majesty of Antarctica’s backdrop. The entire continent is like an open canvas where everything is laid out in front of you in the most beautiful palette of high keys and shifting colors. The polar light transforms the skies by the hour as if you are walking through a classic oil painting– a work of art in its own right. However, because the setting is so alluring and seductive, it can become a challenge to hone in on the details of your environment and capture exceptional images.

Challenges are what makelife interesting; overcoming them is what makes it meaningful. Out of thehundreds of thousands of images I have shot in Antarctica, only a handful stand out as truly unique and unusual. These are the photographs that have tested my acuity and eye as an artist, all while revealing the untold stories of the ice continent’s wild inhabitants.

Emperor Penguin by Paul Nicklen Copyright
“Commitment” Images like this emperor penguin with her chick show the tenderness and commitment of a parent hovering over its child. It’s the simplicity — the adoration with which a penguin parent cares for its chick — that touches a nerve. I will never tire of watching emperor penguins care for their offspring. Both parents take turns feeding and guarding their baby for several months until the chick has grown enough to fend for itself. Of all the emperor penguins and chicks I saw that month, this is the image I remember most.


Emperor Family by Paul Nicklen Copyright
“Parenthood” Penguin parents make incredible sacrifices to ensure their offspring survive in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. Males fast for two months while they incubate their eggs and lose nearly a third of their body weight in the process. Meanwhile, females march as much as 180 miles (300 km) over dense, hardened ice and navigate frigid, predator-filled waters to provide a belly full of life-sustaining krill, squid, and fish for their newborns — a journey from which many never return. Every feature of their biology has evolved to survive the severe Antarctic cold, where wind chills drop as low as -76°F (-60°C) in winter. Penguin parents pour everything they have into raising a single chick, sheltering their young from sub-zero temperatures and braving countless perils to forage daily beneath the ocean’s surface.


Emperor Propulsion by Paul Nicklen Copyright
“Propulsion” The most challenging image I have ever made in Antarctica — and possibly my favorite — is this one taken in a frigid underwater cathedral of ice. One afternoon, after what seemed at the time like weeks of sitting on the edge of an ice pan, I strapped on a tank and submerged myself into some of the coldest and clearest water to be found anywhere on the planet, with visibility that seemingly goes on forever. It is the clearest, most transparent water in the world. Within minutes, dozens of emperor penguins came rocketing past me, in one of the most memorable underwater encounters of my life. Wary of being ambushed by leopard seals, they released thousands of micro-bubbles from their feathers as they rushed by, lubricating their bodies against the friction of the slushy, icy water, doubling and tripling their speeds as they raced to safety. The moment my frozen finger pressed down on the shutter and I heard the camera housing go clunk as the mirror lifted and the shutter came down, I realized all the effort to get here was worth it. It was a moment of pure joy for me. It remains one of the most beautiful things I have seen.


Emperor Defying Gravity ny Paul Nicklen Copyright
“Defying Gravity” Emperor penguins can propel themselves out of Antarctica’s waters in astonishing leaps that seem at times to violate the laws of physics. This image of penguins defying gravity is one I am especially fond of. I believe art should constantly challenge our preconceptions and expectations, whether that means reshaping apex predators as caring, devoted parents or, in this case, showing the athleticism and energy of penguins in midair. Penguins can be swift and graceful, and not at all the waddling caricatures popular culture often makes them out to be. I have probably shot more than 10,000 images of 80-pound penguins flying through the air, but on this occasion, the shot I wanted was of one or more penguins flying directly at me. I knew this would be a challenge because these penguins may rocket through the air at 20 to 30 miles an hour while trying to avoid being grabbed by a leopard seal. ‘Defying Gravity’ was my effort to portray these misunderstood birds as one of the most athletic animals I have witnessed in all my years as a field biologist and conservation photographer.


Emperor Reflections by Paul Nicklen Copyright
“Emperor Reflections” As the ice thinned and vanished to reveal an underwater cathedral of frigid, calm water as clear as glass, I was struck by the beauty of the reflection cast by this raft of penguins calmly swimming out to sea in search of krill and ice fish to feed their hungry, waiting chicks.

I like to think that these images come together to tell a revealing, inspiring story about Antarctica’s power and fragility. I will never tire of the challenge of portraying this last, great continent, and I will continue to strive for simplicity and honesty that celebrate this rugged, untamed wilderness as it truly is. Thank you, too, for sharing and willingly giving your time. Thank you for coming on this journey with me and allowing me to show you these defining moments I cherish deeply.

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