Photograph by Dean Gushee
Photograph by Dean Gushee

The Moment: Shooting Stars

This story appears in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Shooting Stars Capturing the flight of emperor penguins in Antarctica is no easy feat. They rocket around underwater, then explode out of holes in the sea ice (above). To follow them, Paul Nicklen used polar survival skills he learned as a child living among the Inuit on Canada’s Baffin Island. He read the ice and winds, and pressed the shutter even when he lost feeling in his fingers. Every so often, penguins burst from the water at this site, where Nicklen lay waiting. “They soared underwater like fighter jets in a dogfight,” he says. “Then they’d fly out, land, push down with their bill, and stand up, going back to that slow, waddling bird. It was a privilege to see.” —Luna Shyr

Behind the Lens

Q: Penguins are pretty big. Did you worry one might hit you?

A: I was hit once, quite hard in the head. I was in a safe place—out of their way—but a penguin went way off course, flew through the air, and landed on my head. He just casually stood up and walked away. A 70-pound bird to the head hurts a lot, but I’m lucky I’ve never been injured. I was also hit by a leopard seal. Its strategy is to fly out of the water and knock over penguins like bowling pins.

Q: How close were you to the penguins in this shot?

A: I was about three feet away. My camera was in a [protective] Seacam housing; they were sending up so much spray and ice it would’ve destroyed my camera. The noises and thuds when they landed on the ice were incredible. They knocked the air out of themselves and made a squeak. We were lucky in that there was really only one opening where the penguins entered and exited the ocean.

Q: Did you enjoy living with them?

A: The first night in camp, the penguins followed me home. They stood outside and bugled all night. By the third night, I had a hard time sleeping, and the romanticism began to wane.