Emperor Penguins Glide With Speed

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© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
An airborne penguin shows why it has a need for speed: To get out of the water, it may have to clear several feet of ice. A fast exit also helps it elude leopard seals, which often lurk at the ice edge.


Paul Nicklen is a National Geographic photographer who took these amazing photos of emperor penguins in the wild.

Emperor penguins are the tallest of all penguin species. They live on the ice-lands continent of Antarctica and their conservation status was recently downgraded in 2012 by the IUCN to ‘Near Threatened’ (NT) in 2012 – one level worse from ‘Least Concern’. The reasons for the worsening conservation status are debatable, but part of the problems include:

  • Disturbance by Humans – Mostly caused by Tourism, everything from helicopters to photographers could potentially negatively impact this sensitive eco-system.
  • Climate Change – penguins source of food (fish, crustaceans, etc.) is on the decline due to industrial fishing and climate change affecting natural fish populations.
  • Disease – Natural disease and Human Caused disease via environmental toxins reaching prime penguin habitat.
  • Habitat Destruction – Again, anytime humans are interfering with breeding colonies, a potential for habitat destruction is there.

The United States government at one point was considering the listing of the emperor penguin together with other threatened penguin species on the US Endangered Species List, but that petition has not gained any traction.

The story behind the images is one that lead to the discovery of how penguins can glide through the ocean with enormous speed. They eventually discover that the air bubbles seen in documentaries of penguins gliding through the sea is a sort of ability they have because of their biology.


© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
Life is safer at the colony, where predators are few and company is close.


© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
Preparing to launch from the sea to the sea ice, an emperor penguin reaches maximum speed.

The following is an excerpt from the November edition of National Geographic magazine:

When an emperor penguin swims through the water, it is slowed by the friction between its body and the water, keeping its maximum speed somewhere between four and nine feet a second. But in short bursts the penguin can double or even triple its speed by releasing air from its feathers in the form of tiny bubbles. These reduce the density and viscosity of the water around the penguin’s body, cutting drag and enabling the bird to reach speeds that would otherwise be impossible. (As an added benefit, the extra speed helps the penguins avoid predators such as leopard seals.)


© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
The danger of ambush by leopard seals is greatest when entering the water, so penguins sometimes linger at the edge of an ice hole for hours, waiting for one bold bird to plunge in.

So much energy exists in these cold and icy environments that its refreshing to see the colors, beauty, and natural settings teaming with life. Even though these emperor penguins are so far away from human contact under normal conditions, we must not forget that our way of life still effects them.

A long time ago, we posted a short blurb about how DDT was found in penguins as far away as Antarctica.


© Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
“These penguins have probably never seen a human in the water,” says photographer Paul Nicklen, “but it took them only seconds to realize that I posed no danger. They relaxed and allowed me to share their hole in the sea ice.”

Besides the potential toxic effects humans may be inducing in the northern and southern poles, there is always the long term future that is in question with changes in climate.

Capturing moments like the ones in these photos provided by National Geographic are uplifting, inspiring, raw, and an example Earth’s intricate exquisiteness.

Emperor Penguins are one of two species that are native-only to Antarctica.

They are only held in captivity in two zoos around the entire world, one of them being the Penguin Encounter at the San Diego Zoo in California.

Eco Note:
Emperor Penguins are strikingly similar in appearance to the King Penguins where many zoos around the world have them on display. A tear-drop shaped ear patch on the Emperor penguins are typically yellow and open while the King Penguin have orange ear patches that are closed (now you know the difference).

November Issue of National Geographic

credit: National Geographic

These breath-taking photos are courtesy of the November edition of National Geographic magazine. They have an exclusive video and interactive graphic that show penguins rocketing out of the water onto the ice…we promise you it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Additionally, the photographer, Paul Nicklen, is coming out with an app called Pole to Pole – which will feature more awe-inspiring photos of his journey in the wild. The app should be out by October 25, 2012 and we’ll also include it in our Free Environmental Apps list once it’s out.

Thought, Comments, Questions…

About John Tarantino (325 Posts)

My name is John Tarantino ... and no, I am not related to Quinton Tarantino the movie director. I love writing about the environment, traveling, and capturing the world with my Lens as an amateur photographer. You can connect with me via Google+ or via Twitter: Follow @EnvironmentBlog

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