‘I think the emperor penguin is the most beautiful animal I’ve ever photographed,’ says Sue Flood. As one of the big names in polar wildlife image capture, she has probably had more meaningful (and cold) close encounters with ‘these remarkable animals’ than any other natural history photographer.
Flood, who has an enviable back catalogue of stunning imagery, as well as being part of the image-making team behind David Attenborough’s Planet Earth and The Blue Planet television documentary series, tries to put into words her fascination with emperors. She simply says, ‘They’re the biggest of the penguin family,’ while in terms of their ability to put up with the hostilities of the Antarctic climate: ‘They are perfectly adapted to their extreme environment. They are perfect in evolutionary terms and photographically perfect, too.’
In homage to her favourite animal, Flood has produced a coffee-table book – Emperor: The Perfect Penguin – visually cataloguing her many meetings with these evening-suited avians. She returns to the White Continent frequently in pursuit of her images, often guiding other less experienced photographers eager to gain an insight into just how she captures the character of this most remarkable of flightless birds.
With only 40 emperor penguin colonies on a continent twice the size of Australia, the four-foot-tall emperor can sometimes be hard to find. Fortunately for Flood, they can be seen from space on satellite images, while established colonies are in reasonably predictable locations. Even so, it can be a tough job. Flood recalls one expedition to the southernmost emperor rookery at Gould Bay in the Weddell Sea, during which she camped for six weeks in temperatures reaching minus 25°C. ‘You’ve always got to be on the lookout for the first stages of frostbite,’ she says, recoiling in theatrical horror at the memory of two of her male colleagues having to suck each other’s semi-frozen noses in order to ward off a ‘very painful condition’.
Living in a tent without even basic creature comforts, her nightly treat is to listen to audiobooks of Michael Palin’s diaries. Palin returned the compliment by writing the foreword to Emperor, in which he waxes lyrical about Flood’s love of her subject. ‘She opens our eyes wide,’ writes Palin. ‘And then opens them wider.’ He’s in good company. Britain’s most famous explorer, and a man who knows a thing or two about the frozen ends of the earth, Ranulph Fiennes, is a fan of Flood’s photography: ‘These are remarkable photographs that capture this extreme environment and its hardy residents so beautifully.’
While Flood says, ‘you can never have too many nice photos of emperors,’ she cheerfully admits that the problem with penguins is they do have a tendency to all look the same. ‘You’re always trying to find something different, something that literally stands out from the crowd.’ But, over the years, during her eight expeditions
to photograph penguins, as she gained experience and became more familiar with their behaviour, she’s got shots that others simply don’t get.
‘For example, there’s an image I took in a blizzard, where there’s just this penguin’s face looking out of the snow,’ she recalls. ‘There are also moments when you have lovely interactions. They’re incredibly curious. Of course, there are regulations about how close you can get, but if you sit down, they’ll come and check you out.’
Flood then recalls how, once, after a long trek carrying 20kg of equipment, she sat down, fell asleep to the ‘magical sound’ of emperor chicks calling to their mothers, and awoke to find that one of them was touching her hand with its wing.
‘There have been many times when I find myself asking why I do this, but it really is the most fantastic job in the world and a massive privilege to document the natural world and to try to get people interested in it.’
Emperor: The Perfect Penguin by Sue Flood (£25, ACC Art Books). For info on private expeditions and to see more photography visit sueflood.com
Images: Susan Flood, Terry Wardle