An award-winning photographer’s new book gives a rare glimpse at how emperor penguin colonies manage to thrive on the southernmost continent on Earth.
A trip to Antarctica will change your life.
So says Sue Flood, an award-winning photographer who’s traveled to some of the world’s most remote corners to document wildlife and wilderness. Over the course of her career, Flood has taken approximately 50 trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. It’s not just icy landscapes that fuel her love for the planet’s polar regions—it’s a particular penguin species.
“One of the loveliest moments you can ever hope to experience is to stand in the middle of an emperor penguin colony, hundreds of miles from civilization, surrounded by the extraordinary cacophony of chicks and adults calling to one another,” she says.
Emperor penguins, the largest of all living penguin species, can only be found in Antarctica. Today, as rising temperatures reduce their breeding grounds and overfishing eliminates their food sources, emperor penguins are considered “near threatened.” Flood’s new photography book, Emperor: The Perfect Penguin, showcases the incredible ways these flightless birds survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth.
In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Flood worked as part of the Quark Expeditions polar adventures team and voyaged to the remote Snow Hill Island emperor penguin colony in the Weddell Sea. In 2016, she joined the Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions team for six weeks in a tented camp on the Ronne Ice Shelf, photographing and studying the world’s southernmost emperor penguin colony at Gould Bay.
“Emperor penguins spend their entire lives either out on the sea ice or feeding in the Southern Ocean,” Flood says. During winter in Antarctica, temperatures can drop to -70°F, and winds on the sea ice can reach more than 90 miles an hour. But the birds are experts at surviving under these extreme conditions.
Each year, they meet to breed around the start of Antarctica’s winter in April. The female penguin lays an egg, then passes it to her male partner to keep the egg safe and warm. She then embarks on a strenuous journey to the open ocean to feed on fish, squid, and krill. When the females return to the breeding grounds (usually around July), they bring with them stomachs full of food, which they regurgitate for their chicks to eat. The female and male emperor penguins then switch duties, with the males heading out to the ocean to do their part in finding nourishment to feed their young.
But scientists are concerned that as climate change progresses, melting sea ice will reduce the abundance of krill—the primary food source for emperor penguins—and the birds might not be able to find enough food to build up body fat to keep both themselves and their offspring warm. “Sea ice is absolutely critical to these birds’ survival,” Flood says, as it also provides important refuge from predators such as leopard seals and killer whales.
“I think the experience of visiting the Antarctic creates ambassadors out of the people who go there,” Flood says. “Most people are then inspired to make small changes in their lifestyles because of the things they’ve seen.”
Emperor: The Perfect Penguin is available for purchase on Amazon.
>> Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Antarctica