(Click on image for larger size)A scene containing a frenzy of plumage and bubbles as emperor penguins prepare to blast their way through a hole in the ice has earned Paul Nicklen one of the world's top photo awards. The Canadian braved the extreme cold of Antarctica and attack by leopard seals to get the shot. His picture won the Underwater Worlds category and the overall title in this year's Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
It is called "Bubble Jetting Emperors".
"The emperors are returning from the open ocean," explained Nicklen. "They've been at sea for three weeks, their bellies are full of food, and they're bringing it back for their chicks. They're about to rocket out on to the ice," the National Geographic Magazine photographer told BBC News. "I was just snorkelling with my legs locked under the ice, and they would be all over me - on my hand, on my back. Amazing."
The emperors have to run the gauntlet of leopard seals who will try to grab and eat the birds as they exit the water. But the penguins have evolved a very clever strategy to evade capture. First, they surface to survey the danger, but as they do so they trap as much air into their plumage as they can manage. Then they dive and, from deep down, they shoot for the edge of the ice, squeezing their feathers as they rise.
This expels millions of small bubbles. The "coat of air" reduces drag and accelerates the animal upwards and beyond the marauding seals. "The science shows they can double or even triple their speed. They can go from 10km/h to 30km/h as they come rocketing up," Nicklen said. The photographer fired off more than 50,000 frames over the course of a three-week period in the Ross Sea, near Cape Washington.