3 April 2017

Standing motionless at the ice edge, I scoured the recently frozen ocean that lay below me and listened. The sky was clear, the atmosphere completely silent. Looking towards the midday sun that hovered just above the horizon to the north, falling glitter twinkled as it filled the air. ‘Diamond dust’, suspended ice particles, drifted by, hanging in the ether. There wasn’t a breath of wind to disturb them as they rose and fell, shimmering in the dawn-like light. I raised my binoculars to my eyes. Straight to the north, black shimmering specks appeared like a mirage just above the horizon. At first just a few, but as my eyes adjusted, tens, then hundreds rose as if they were appearing from the other side of the Earth, advancing over its curve. Were the emperors actually returning? Was I watching them march towards me in great long lines liked I’d imagined? If so, this was the day I thought I’d never experience. One of the most extraordinary sights Earth’s natural world has to offer. This was the day I’d dreamt about as a child.

At –25 degrees Celsius, my face was numb and my cheeks were as red as my polar suit. My fur hat, wrapped around my face, had developed a crust of ice where my exhaled breath had solidified onto its fibres. But despite the discomfort of the conditions, the beauty of the landscape distracted my mind from any pain.

Grabbing the camera, I looked through the viewfinder. The enormous lens magnified the landscape further and compressed the distance between me and the horizon. As far as I could see, black specks swayed from side to side, seeming to waddle ever closer over the ice. This was it; the emperors were finally on their way. As they approached, the shape of each individual became distinguishable: rounded bodies, elongated necks and long, sharp beaks. Single-file lines of white bellies reflected the sky’s light, illuminating the white snowy surface in front of them. Jagged icebergs, recently frozen in place, towered high, dwarfing the penguins as they passed under them. As I watched the penguins approach, the cold air rippled and the pink sky gave an ethereal feel. It didn’t look real.

Long, winding parades crept their way towards me like an invasion of ants. At the front of each line, lead birds periodically paused, causing a comical pile-up effect down the line. Extending their necks, each penguin looked impatiently over the shoulder of the bird in front. The recent snowfall had completely covered the ridges in the newly formed sea ice, making the surface look flat and uniform, and at speed, the penguins marched closer, leaving long, narrow tracks behind them.

The spectacle playing out in front of me was exquisite. If I had tried to describe the emperors’ return, my portrayal wouldn’t have come close to what I was witnessing. I felt like I was on a different planet and had no idea that this level of beauty existed.

My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors