The emperor penguin has managed to create a home in one of the most hostile habitats on Earth – Antarctica.
And award-winning photographer Stefan Christmann has captured their unique existence there in a quite breathtaking collection of photographs, showcased in a stunning coffee table book called Penguin – A Story of Survival, published by teNeues (www.teneues.com).
It’s a book that has been eight years in the making.
Stefan – who won the NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award in 2019 and who helped plan and film the Emperor Penguins episode for BBC Dynasties – first wintered in Antarctica in 2012 and fell in love with the neighbours of his research base: the 10,000 emperor penguins of Atka Bay.
He photographed them across two ‘overwinterings’, with the book displaying the results alongside Stefan’s stories from the everyday life of the animals – of life and survival, of birth, love and companionship at the end of the world.
Scroll down to see 10 of Stefan’s jaw-dropping pictures, accompanied by his descriptions of them.
‘The huddle,’ says Stefan, ‘is the emperor penguins’ secret weapon against the cold and their ultimate survival strategy. Working as a giant incubator, the birds will stand close to each other with their heads tucked between the shoulders of the birds in front of them. Sharing their dissipated body heat, the temperature can reach up to 37C in the centre of the huddle’
‘The strategy of huddling,’ says Stefan, ‘is a behaviour that has to be learned by the young penguin chicks early on in their lives. It is one of the cutest things I have ever seen. Despite their parents being extremely calm and organised while huddling, the young ones try to take shortcuts into the warm centre by crowd-surfing over their peers. Sooner or later, however, they will understand that everybody gets to be in the warm centre, even those waiting in line’
Stefan says of this incredible image: ‘Even when the penguins are huddling and conserving their energy on a cold Antarctic winter day, there is always the odd one out who is already warm enough. Many times, these individuals broke away from the colony and welcomed us as we carefully approached from afar. We always considered them to be our welcoming committee’
Describing the behaviour on display here, Stefan says: ‘One behaviour of emperor penguins which is not fully understood up to this day are “playdates” for the chicks, which are arranged by the parents. Usually two adults, with chicks on their feet, will stand right in front of each other and constantly lift their brood pouches. The chicks usually start interacting with each other, calling and reaching for their peers on the other side. The parents will sometimes stand so close to each other that their chests touch and they can rest against each other.’ This behaviour led Stefan to come up with the godparent theory, which is also explained in the book
‘Emperor penguins are designed for many things, but when it comes to mating it becomes quite obvious that balancing is not their strong suit,’ explains Stefan. ‘When the male steps onto the back of the female just before copulation, he struggles to find a safe stance, resembling someone taking their very first surfing lesson’
An emperor penguin female walking away from the colony towards the sea. Stefan explains: ‘After the female has laid her egg and successfully passed it on to the male, it is time for her to leave the colony. She desperately needs to feed and refuel her depleted energy reserves. During the early stages of egg-laying, many females will start their long hike to the ocean all by themselves. While their journey will be lonely and cold, at least they know that they have a head start into the breeding cycle’
An emperor penguin group returning across sea ice to form a breeding colony. Stefans writes: ‘Late March to early April is the time when the emperor penguins return from the open ocean and make their way back to their breeding grounds. The newly-formed sea ice is covered with pressure ridges at that time, which resembles an obstacle course for the returning birds’
Emperor penguin adults and fledgelings aged 20-24 weeks diving into sea. Stefan explains: ‘Emperor penguins normally breed on the sea ice, but its increasing destabilisation over the past decades oftentimes forces them to finish their annual moult on the more stable ice shelf. When it is time for them to return to the ocean, they must take risky leaps from steep ice cliffs. While this looks spectacular, in reality, it is a behaviour that should not exist’
‘Emperor penguins don’t build any nests and hence must carefully balance the fragile egg on the backs of their feet,’ explains Stefan. ‘Finally, they will put their brood pouch over it, in order to keep it warm and shielded from the elements. With every step they take, they rotate the egg on their feet a tiny bit, to evenly warm it from all sides’
‘An emperor penguin couple’s unique song is their musical key to finding each other amongst thousands of other birds in the colony,’ reveals Stefan. ‘When they return from foraging in the open ocean, they will call out for their mate upon arrival. On very cold days, their warm breath will paint this characteristic melody into the air like the scores of a musical notation’
Penguin – A Story of Survival by Stefan Christmann is published by teNeues (www.teneues.com). Represented by Nature Picture Library (NPL) www.naturepl.com