Antarctica is a wonderful continent and one of the only places on this planet where nature truly feels untouched. The remoteness of the region makes getting there a challenge and that really keeps the tourists and world population away. I traveled there on a large cruise type ship and the entire time I was there I only saw two other vessels. Truly an amazing world in it’s own.
My 3 week journey starts as I leave my home headed to the airport accompanied by my wonderful family. Everyone gets a hug and kiss and my daughter has a sneaky look on her face. Within a few minutes after they leave I realize that she has appropriated my favorite flavor of potato chips (ruffles sour cream and cheddar if anyone needs Christmas ideas.) After many hours I land in Buenos Aires, I pay the stupid “tourist tax” which is $140 for US citizens but much less for other countries, hmmm, something political there maybe? I have my first meal in Argentina, lamb kabob and wine for breakfast! What a wonderful idea, much better than eggs, why don’t we do this at home? I love traveling to foreign countries and seeing how the cultures work. The most surprising thing I saw at this airport was the mothers and babies. All the women in Argentina breast-feed their babies out in the open, and it works great! There are no crying babies anywhere; the solution is simple. The baby cries it gets a boob in the face, simple effective and the system works! So now I board my final connecting flight and the planes are finally over.
Most any commercially organized journey to Antarctica starts at the southernmost city on our planet, Ushuaia. Situated in Argentina this city has grown solely for the purpose of Antarctic travel. However, unlike other places that have gotten bigger this town still retains its roots and you see that in the people. The population of Ushuaia has some of the most helpful and polite people that I have met in a long time. The taxis are honest, the hotel staff actually cares about its guests and the restaurants are all spectacular. I love to eat and I was not disappointed one bit. At home I eat mostly organic and there that’s just their normal way of life. At one restaurant they literally butchered the sheep each morning and cooked the entire animal hoping that they would have enough customers to use it up. But I digress, I could go on about food for many paragraphs but this is not a food article, ha ha.
I’ve got a couple days in town before I depart so it’s time to find some photographic opportunities. Ushuaia is a very brightly colored city. Murals are painted on the walls and if you get a few blocks off the main street it becomes a very third world city. If you are an architectural photographer you can have tons of fun exploring all the different shapes and colors. I however am a nature and landscape photographer. Ushuaia is surrounded by the very tail end of the Alps which in this area are amazing glacial mountains. I jumped on a rental helicopter and we went to the top where we found some crystal clear lakes and streams nestled among the peaks. The only problem I had is the pilot is used to transporting tourists so he has the heat on at just a little below the temperature of the surface of the sun and wants to make the flight an adventure. He takes the scenic route and likes to fly sideways because it’s “more fun and like the movies” he says. That’s probably good if you aren’t still recovering from a day of airline travel… ugggg seasickness in the air isn’t fun. Finally we reach town again and land. It’s a great start to what will be an amazing trip. I really recommend getting out and photographing something as soon as possible after a long plane flight, it calms you and puts you into a much more wonderful mood. See the world, don’t just hole yourself up in a hotel and wait for the main event, you will not be at these locations often usually.
So the day has finally come, I am boarding the ship bound for the wilderness of Antarctica with several other photographers. Everyone has been checking weather forecasts and we suddenly have all become experts on wind and wave predictions and how currents flow. If you wonder why we are all concerned by weather then get on YouTube and look up Drake Passage. The entertainment for the first few hours of the voyage is everyone comparing which medicine they have for seasickness and hoping they will all work. The most recent news predicted 15-20 foot waves. That’s actually good weather for the two day crossing of the Drake. Unfortunately just like weathermen in the States the predictions were wrong. We didn’t have the 60-80 foot waves that swamp ships and sink them but we did have our share of 40 footers. And remember, this goes on for two days and nights constant!! There were sick passengers that never left their cabins and then there were the evil ones that were just fine and were always smiling and laughing happily with no seasickness effects at all.
Eventually like everything else in life, things get better and we are finally in Antarctica where the water is perfectly smooth and we see our first iceberg. Seeing your first iceberg is a really great feeling. You have spent days at sea with overcast skies and very few photographic opportunities. Now you are seeing what you have been waiting for! The shutters click excitedly like we are all talking fast and smiling like little children. Then there is more ice ahead and more and more. We soon realize that getting excited about that first iceberg was just silly and we will see thousands more of them in the week to come.
Antarctica barely has night. There are about 22 hours of sunlight so that gives you incredible time spans of long dusk and dawn golden light. It’s a photographer’s dream location as far as light is concerned.
So it’s our first night of photography and it’s about 11pm. There are no docks or anything like that here so we go ashore on small inflatable zodiac boats. The island was basically a testing scenario so we could get used to how the boats work but there were penguins! Woo Hoo I thought, penguins that aren’t in a zoo! Well, while they are the cutest little buggers on the planet, penguins stink. Imagine a chicken coop with about 50 dead and rotten chickens, then throw some tuna in there. Let it sit for a few days in the hot sun, that’s what penguin colonies smell like.
Photographing penguins is a skill in it’s own. They have their own personalities and social structure. I had a buddy that never worked with landscapes before; he mostly did photojournalism. He treated the penguins as just another odd human tribe and he had a ball with them at every island. Once I followed his mental theory of watching them as people it was very entertaining to watch them interact with each other.
After returning to the ship and settling in at about 2am I was awoken at 6:30 to the announcement that breakfast would be served at 7. No relaxation on this boat. You can’t skip meals because they don’t leave snacks out between meals. I learned to steal oranges and bananas…
There were many islands and inlets we spent time at but one of the most memorable ones was Deception Island, which is an old, abandoned whaling station. It was a volcanic beach with all sorts of whaling equipment and buildings and even an old airplane hanger. One thing that really stood out was the many whalebones all over the beach, some scattered and some in huge piles. A very odd site to see; but amazing nonetheless.
Penguins are still everywhere but the smell is becoming something that is just considered “normal” at this point. They just completely ignore us; the rule is that we can’t approach them closer than 15 feet or so. Fortunately they don’t follow that rule and they always walk right up to us without knowing how horrible of a threat humans are in the rest of the world. It pretty much goes for all the wildlife there. None of them are afraid of you so you can get incredible images right up close.
Traveling through the ice fields is amazing enough in a huge ship but when we get off the ship and explore them closer it’s even crazier. I don’t know who thought the idea of an inflatable boat amid huge pieces of sharp ice was a good idea, but strangely enough it works. The drivers aren’t afraid to hit the ice either. The most memorable driver introduced himself as “I’m Vlad, I’m from Russia, I drive boats, I fix things.” That was about all the English we could get out of him but he always laughed along with us and never sank the boat, so Vlad rocks!
I say it all the time, when you see a photographic opportunity take the photo right away. Don’t say I’ll come back and get it later. I landed on an island and there was this cute little black penguin right there when I started exploring. I said to myself “cool, I’ll have to make sure I get pictures of these guys today.” So I wandered around wondering why I couldn’t find a whole group of this new breed. It took me 2 hours to find him again and I had to climb a rock cliff to get pictures of him. It turns out that according to the expedition’s bird expert he was extremely rare and was the only one of his kind on the whole island. So please remember, always take pictures when you first see something that sparks your interest, otherwise you may lose that opportunity forever.
It always turns out that when it’s time to leave that’s when the best light appears. On our last hour on the zodiacs the sun appeared out of nowhere and reflected off the icebergs making them sparkle like we hadn’t seen the entire trip. We made our driver keep our boat out so long that they sent two other boats out to corral us and force us to come back. They did radio us before that but our driver was awesome and just ignored them, very groovy.
So that was the last day of shooting. Remember the Drake Passage from the beginning of the article? Well, here it is again, and we had a headwind so it took us three days to get back this time, plus the waves were bigger. The unofficial solution was to take enough seasick medicine to make you practically pass out and just sleep through those days, ha ha.
We finally made it back to port in Ushuaia and the crew was wonderful. They all stood at the gangway and shook everyone’s hands. It was a small gesture but it makes a big difference and you just don’t see that courtesy anymore these days. It’s great to be back on dry land and I spend the last few hours waiting for the plane in a small café with a few other photographers. It’s just a funny sight to see us all sit down together and everyone pulls out an iPad or iPhone or laptop and connects back to the Internet and the real world. The locals were awesome; we didn’t get one dirty look as we took up all the bandwidth for about a small city block within 5 minutes of getting into the café, ha ha!
Would I go back? Yes, I had an incredible time and I think someday I will return. Some of the things I would do different? I would travel later in the year, I think late January is a good time to go, there is more wildlife as the ice melts further South and the baby penguins are hatching. I also learned that there is some sort of airplane service that will fly you down to Antarctica where you can get on the boat there and avoid the entire Drake Passage, that’s definitely something I would do next time.
Antarctica is an expensive place to visit. Save your nickels and make sure you go there someday. It is definitely an experience you will never forget, it is simply “nature untouched.