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Behind the Photo: Paul Nicklen’s Leaping Penguins

Paul Nicklen
Come up with any caption you want, only Paul Nicklen knows what was really going on. (Photo by Paul Nicklen)

When you see a photo like Paul Nicklen’s shot of leaping penguins above, it’s not difficult for a narrative to form. The photo is so clear and action-packed that it feels suited for a caption contest or a Far Side cartoon.

But there is a real story behind the photo, and the man behind the camera has it.

“I was in the Ross Sea in Antarctica working on a National Geographic story about emperor penguins. I was photographing the penguins launching themselves onto the ice from the water. I would point my camera at one spot, wait, and then ten penguins would fly up to the right, six to the left, and one would fly over me—it was extremely hard to get a good shot. It became quite comical to see hundreds of penguins flying out of the water and knocking the air out of themselves when they landed on their bellies. I felt a little bit sorry for them, but they were fine. This is what their bodies are designed to do. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in my career,” Nicklen said.

He spent his childhood in an isolated Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic. He’s learned the ways of survival on the ice, and has come to know the animals that thrive in it.

As a photographer, Paul routinely spends months braving extreme conditions to get unforgettable images of the world’s most remote places and their inhabitants. He’s traveled deep into the forests of British Columbia to track the ghostly and elusive spirit bear, and has gone face-to-face under Arctic ice with emperor penguins, polar bears, and surprisingly dangerous walruses.

If you’re in New York, you can join Paul Nicklen as he shares his stories of adventure, photography, and conservation live at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on February 4. He’ll tell more stories about what goes on behind the pages of National Geographic Magazine with video and photos from his wild explorations.

For more information or to buy tickets, please visit National Geographic Live’s event page.


  1. Sandra Brown
    Philadelphia, PA
    February 4, 2015, 1:23 pm

    I wish I were you!!! So, so beautiful!!!

  2. Wendy Csaszar-Roman
    Northield, New Jersey
    February 3, 2015, 10:59 pm

    Absolutely Amazing!

  3. Carolyn
    elmwood park, nj
    February 3, 2015, 10:07 pm


  4. preston gibson
    rio grande, nj
    February 3, 2015, 7:48 am

    Ref: sentence regarding arctic ice … polar bears and walruses are found in arctic waters; penguins are found in antarctic watets.

    Antarctic predators of pengins include orcas (killer whales) and leopard seals.

  5. ellen
    st.augustine, fl
    February 3, 2015, 7:21 am

    a truly amazing video and commentary…thank you for your photography and dedication.

  6. jed
    Erie Pa. U.S. of A.
    February 3, 2015, 6:49 am

    That was nice, thank You.

  7. E C Parrish
    February 3, 2015, 6:40 am

    Angry Birds game anyone?

  8. Lognoul Michèle
    February 3, 2015, 2:47 am

    Magnifique !

  9. Jhon Fustin
    February 2, 2015, 9:46 pm

    Nice picture but it’s over-saturated!

  10. Maria Manuela Xu
    February 2, 2015, 5:56 pm


  11. brandy roice
    February 2, 2015, 2:48 pm

    For me, if you’re willing to do just a little research, there is something pretty amazing about any and all animals. When you understand how these penguins have to live, because of the isolation, the cold, the distance to food, and the way they have to parent, its amazing they exist at all!

  12. brandy roice
    February 2, 2015, 2:39 pm

    Pilot to tower, cleared for landing on runway iceberg.

  13. Georgi Purlikov
    February 2, 2015, 2:14 pm

    black and white on the rocks

  14. Yong Choi
    United States
    February 2, 2015, 12:59 pm

    Fresh and Amazing!