Emperor: A Survival Story

 

Stefan Christmann
Stefan Christmann

When Stefan Christmann got the chance to overwinter in Antarctica as a scientist, he didn’t merely carry out his research. As a keen nature photographer, he also wanted to document the nearby emperor penguin colony. His spectacular images were later discovered by the BBC Natural History Unit, who recruited Christmann to be a part of an three person Antarctic film crew in 2017. Over the course of a year on the icy continent, through howling winds and temperatures that often dropped below -45°C, Christmann remained dedicated to his mission. Photographers almost never stay in Antarctica for an entire year, which gave Christmann the opportunity to produce an unparalleled body of work on a very tough bird – and one of the most gripping survival stories on Earth.

 

Award Winning Images

On 15th October 2019, Christmann was awarded the coveted Porfolio prize in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for the six images below. Of the award, he says:

“When I first picked up a camera as a student, the quality of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year was what I always aspired to. Now, almost 20 years later, I finally have proof that anyone can become a part of this amazing competition by pouring their heart and soul into something they really care about. I hope it will inspire other young photographers to embark on their own personal journeys and never ever give up!”

Christmann’s hard-earned images have also been recognised this year by other major photographic competitions.

‘What’cha Got?’ -the title he gave to his image of two male emperors on parental duty – was the winner of Birds Category in the 2019 GDT Nature Photographer of the Year, and he was also awarded the Polar Passion prize in the 2019 Windland Smith Rice Awards for his stunning portrait of a male-female pair practicing their egg incubation skills with a snowball. Two additional images – one of a male incubating a recently-laid egg and another of two males brooding their chicks – were highly honoured in the same category.

Emperors Under Threat

Christmann’s latest competition win comes a week after scientists recommended that emperor penguins be classified as Vulnerable to extinction. A review of more than 150 studies, published in Biological Conservation, argues for greater protections if the penguins are going to survive the predicted effects of global warming and sea-ice loss. In Christmann’s own words:

“The emperor penguins’ main habitat is the sea ice. Climate change is threatening this habitat as warmer water causes the sea ice to form later in the year and break up earlier. While raising their chicks or undergoing their molt, the ground is literally taken away under the penguins’ feet. When we were filming in Atka bay in 2017 we could see some of the birds climbing up the snow ramps that had formed between the sea ice and the ice shelf. After having climbed onto the ice shelf they would stay there even until after the sea had ice broken up. Whether it was sheer luck or an adaption in their survival strategy is unclear to me, but it was remarkable behaviour and ultimately saved their lives.”

Magic Moments

During his time in Antarctica, Christmann had many special encounters with his feathered friends, and gained a great deal of insights into their lives and behaviour.

The Huddle

“The below photograph illustrates the power of teamwork. Emperor penguins live in one of the most extreme habitats on earth, where winter temperatures plummet to -45°C, wind speeds can reach up to 200km/h, and for many weeks during the Antarctic winter, the sun never rises. The huddle is their secret weapon against the cold. By sticking together in large aggregations, they share their body heat and stabilize their own core temperature in the process. For me, the hardest part of taking this image was the cold itself. I used a tilt-shift lens to get enough depth of field, but such lenses require fine motor skills. That meant taking my gloves off. The cold stung like needles piercing my fingertips. With only the twilight of the polar night in the distance, this image shows both the beauty and hardship of the emperors’ lives.”

Synchrony

“A very special time in the yearly cycle of the emperor penguin is the courtship phase when the birds select their partners for the breeding season. This spectacle occurs anew every year. Once the penguins have chosen a suitable partner, a beautiful ritual unfolds. Over many days they will slowly align their bodies and their behaviour to achieve a state of almost perfect synchrony. Each penguin mirrors the movement of the other. When I witnessed this ritual with my own eyes I knew that I had to capture it in a photograph. This pair already had a strong rapport and had probably been courting for several days. I watched them call in perfect unison before they quickly lifted their heads and spun them behind their backs. I had to act quickly to capture this moment of beautiful symmetry.”

Harassment

“During the Antarctic winter, the emperor penguins of Atka Bay have only themselves for company. No other species braves the open ice at this time. In summer, however, this situation changes. Lots of other animals return to the Antarctic shorelines in order to take advantage of the rich ocean waters. Adelie penguins are amongst these “tourists”. I witnessed them trying to steal food that the emperors were regurgitating for their growing chicks. Sometimes, the adelies would grow impatient and start to harass the chick for no obvious reason. This resulted in a strong reaction from the parent! Nevertheless, the scavenging strategy seemed to pay off, and the adelies rarely seemed troubled by the conflict. In fact, some of the time I got the feeling that they actually enjoyed causing trouble in the otherwise very calm emperor colony!”

One of a Kind

“I was shocked when I first encountered this fully black emperor penguin. I’d heard of albino penguins before, but this was even more unusual. The unique colouration is the result of a very rare mutation called melanism – a genetic accident that causes the carrier to develop dark fur, skin or feathers. This penguin could very well be the only one of its kind alive today. Roughly speaking, emperor penguins are half white and half black, so finding a melanistic one in a colony of around 10,000 animals only happens by chance. I was lucky enough to have a total of three encounters with this beautiful individual when it was walking around the periphery of the colony. It had clearly reached adulthood and hence must have successfully lived amongst the colony for many years.”

More Tales of Love, Life and Loss

Emperor penguins are built to cope with the extreme cold and lack of food in the icy deserts at the bottom of our world. Dense feathers and a thick layer of sub-dermal fat provide insulation and help maintain core body temperature. But physical adaptations alone are not enough to guarantee survival. A lone emperor penguin would not make it in Antarctica. It is the strength of the bonds these birds form with each other which enables their survival. The way they work together makes it possible for them to face considerable challenges year after year after year. Look deeper into their lives, and discover more of Christmann’s incredible images, in our new photo story: Emperor Penguin: Survival Against the Odds.

Stefan Christmann’s images are available for prints and a selection of his work can be viewed on our prints site.