Photograph by Sunil Gopalan, National Geographic Your Shot
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The Atlantic puffin can hold a large number of small fish in its spacious beak.

Photograph by Sunil Gopalan, National Geographic Your Shot

Behind the Stunning Photo of a Puffin Gorging on Fish

Discover the story behind this 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year entry.

“I primarily photograph birds,” says National Geographic Your Shot photographer and computer engineer by day Sunil Gopalan. “I had photographed two other species of puffins (horned and tufted) before in Alaska, and the only one that was remaining on my list was the Atlantic puffin.”

Gopalan says this particular species of puffin can be found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but he wanted to find a remote location to shoot photos of them—the less people the better. After conducting some research, he settled on the small island of Fair Isle off the coast of Shetland, in northern Scotland. (Watch a curious puffin befriend a human.)

Shetland’s website calls itself famous for its “birds, knitwear, and historic shipwrecks.” Fair Isle can only be reached by means of a four-hour ferry ride, or a small twin-engine plane, making it a relatively unfrequented, albeit ruggedly beautiful, destination.

Gopalan’s travels took him from the Midwestern United States to Glasgow to Sumburgh, where he boarded a small aircraft to his puffin paradise. While most of his time spent on the island yielded ideal weather, one rainy morning gave him the opportunity to capture something a bit different. Gopalan was thinking about eating breakfast when a rain-drenched puffin appeared carrying a meal of its own.

This was his moment to act, and he snapped photo after photo. The result: stunning portraits of the wild bird with a bountiful feast of tiny fish in its bill, making its way back to bring the haul to its hungry chick. He submitted his best shot online in hopes of being named the 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year.

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Fish hang out of the beak of an Atlantic puffin, on its way to feed its young chick.

Atlantic puffins spend most of their lives at sea, returning to land only to form breeding colonies during spring and summer. The Atlantic puffin’s beak appears a dull shade of grey during winter, but it changes to a bright orange when spring returns. This change earns it a nickname of “sea parrot.”

When Gopalan visited Fair Isle in July, puffin mothers had already laid their eggs (usually one per nest) upon the rocky, North Atlantic cliffs. During this time, parents take turns feeding their chicks small fish that they catch in their spacious bills. (Watch a baby puffin perform its first solo swim.)

Extremely agile birds, Atlantic puffins steer through the water with rudderlike webbed feet, and dive to depths of up to 200 feet. They typically hunt small fish such as herring or sand eels, and they fly back to their nests at a rapid speed of 400 flaps per minute, reaching speeds up to 55 miles per hour. (See a video of young Icelandic puffins who were saved by children.)

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Atlantic puffins can be found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, such as this one in northern Scotland.

The challenge of shooting speedy birds such as the Atlantic puffin is precisely what makes them his favorite photographic subject, and it drives Gopalan to travel as frequently as possible, to try to capture new species from around the world. He then submits his favorite images on Your Shot. Says Gopalan, “National Geographic is the gold standard for nature enthusiasts. I recall reading old copies of the magazine and imagining what it might be like to go on assignment.”

He says Your Shot is a great way to be involved in the photographic community, and that he is able to keep great company by interacting with other photographers on the platform. “That is the kind of inspiration that everyone needs in order to keep doing better, and the Nature Photographer competition is the highest of bars to aspire for,” he says.

See more of Sunil Gopalan’s work at

Think you have the winning photo? Enter your best nature photography for a chance to be named the 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year.