Amy Novotny

Amy Novotny trekked through the frozen landscape of Antarctica to photograph penguins, now on display at HD SOUTH in Gilbert. 

In 2018, Amy Novotny endured two weeks in cramped accommodations on a Russian icebreaker and a dangerous crossing of the Drake Passage in the Southern Ocean to photograph Antarctica’s emperor penguins.

Her rare photos of the wildlife colony are being exhibited in “The Impact of a Journey: Antarctica and the Emperors by Amy Novotny,” courtesy of Art Intersection, at HD South in downtown Gilbert through Oct. 10.

“I want to share the experience of observing an animal species whose beauty is beyond words,” Novotny said. “These penguins suffer greatly to live in this part of the world and yet, they are incredibly peaceful and curious. They have many behaviors similar to humans that will endear the hearts of all observers.”

A physical therapist, ultramarathoner and photographer, Novotny runs PABR Institute in Scottsdale, which focuses on pain relief. She has currently closed her clinic because of the COVID-19 pandemic and is in Sedona, where she consults online clients living around the world.

It’s more common to visit the western peninsula of Antarctica, but a trip to the eastern side, in the Weddell Sea is a chance of a lifetime, said Novotny, who received the opportunity thanks to one of her patients. 

She worked with the elderly patient, a bird photographer, for more than six months to enable him to walk across the sea ice with his camera gear.

Earlier that year, she also accompanied the bird photographer to other wildlife sites in Arctic Norway, Arctic Finland, the United Kingdom and Argentina and as well as the U.S. and built on her knowledge of wildlife photography.

Atlantic puffins, Northern Gannets, Ruffs, gulls, cormorants, common murres, herons, pelicans, terns, egrets and a variety of small shore birds have all come in focus of her lens. 

“I find wildlife photography to be one of the hardest types of photography because it requires us not only to capture the animal in a pose but also to consider the background to enhance the animal instead of detracting from it,” she said. 

“The unpredictable nature of wildlife also thrills me.  We can study animals to learn about their behavior but there is still an aspect of uncertainty with them.” 

The emperors, the largest penguin species in the world that can reach heights of 4 feet, were mild in behavior.  

“By international law, we could not approach the colony closer than 30 meters. If we sat down and the penguins approached us, that was permissible,” she said. “Many times, I was approached by both adults and chicks that came within two feet of me.”

One even put its beak in her lens.

“None of us dared to reach out to touch the penguins,” she added. “This was a species that had no exposure to humans and, while they were curious, they didn’t show the typical fear that plagues wildlife in human populated areas. It was a magical experience.” 

Novotny is exhibiting about 70 images of various sizes.

 She has several messages to communicate to the public: the difficulties of visiting the area, the evidence of climate change and how we can help the animals by avoiding products such as krill oil, derived from a small crustacean that the penguins need for food. 

Life for the penguins is not easy in the harsh Antarctic winters, when wind chills can reach -75 degrees F. 

The emperor penguins must huddle in large groups and alternate who is on the outer edge so they can all spend some time in the warmth of the inner circle.  

They breed during this season and the females lay an egg on their feet. They quickly transfer the egg to the father’s feet and then leave the colony for two months, traveling up to 50 miles to find an opening in sea ice to dive into the ocean for food. 

“They must travel back to relieve the father of the newly-hatched chick duties so he can go seek food as he has lost much body weight during this time,” Novotny said. “Many chicks and adults don’t survive this process, not just from predators but from the harsh weather.”

Perhaps the most devastating message is the one about climate change. 

“Part of my exhibition discusses how the decrease in sea ice means that more solar energy is absorbed by the dark ocean waters,” she said.

 “This affects ocean currents and the ability of earth to disperse heat,” she explained. “This process impacts all of us no matter where we are in this world and we can all take part in changing this unfortunate phenomenon.”

When she visited, the temperature was an abnormal 50 degrees F when she was more prepared for the normal 15 degrees F.  

“I was dressed in several layers of thick merino wool as well as down jackets and a parka so I was plenty warm enough,” she said. “At times, I even shed some layers and laid down on the sea ice with the penguins to cool down.”

Her delight in getting close to the creatures was worth the harrowing journey to the area.

She, along with the bird photographer, flew to the southern tip of Argentina to a town called Ushuaia and boarded a Russian icebreaker, a working ship in Russia used to clear paths through ice for transportation of goods. 

“It took them a couple months to sail from Russia down to Argentina to allow it to be used for our expedition,” she said, adding that it happened for the first time in eight years.  

The two weeks were “far from luxurious” with accommodations that were “extremely small, smaller than a dorm room for three people,” she said.  

The exhibition includes photos of the room and the ship.  

The crossing was extremely dangerous and her roommate was thrown across the room and broke her elbow. 

“We got caught in a storm and spun in circles for 25 hours, during which we were thrown from side-to-side and experienced 70 m.p.h. winds and 23 feet swells.”

Novotny plans to record a video presentation on her experience and hold a virtual live event in mid-July. If you are interested in participating, send her an email at amy@pabrinstitute.com for exact date and time.

“The Impact of a Journey: Antarctica and the Emperors by Amy Novotny” is at HD South, Home of the Gilbert Historical Museum, 10 S. Gilbert Road. Details: hdsouth.org and artintersection.com