Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica Photo Tour
19 November 2014
Our journey started in Ushuaia in Argentina – the southern most town in the world and the gateway to Antarctica. By this time Shem and I had been here a few days and that was a good thing considering that our luggage was lost on the way there and the few extra days was enough buffer to find it again in time for our trip. We were going to board the ship the next day, so in the afternoon we decided to hike up a mountain next to Ushuaia to take a few photos and getting our “shutter fingers” warmed up.
20 November 2014
Finally the day of departure arrived. It was also my birthday, so I had many reasons to celebrate! The ship was only leaving port at 4pm, so we still had time to enjoy good coffee at various coffee shops in Ushuaia and catch up on the last internet access we would have for a while. 4pm arrived and our photographic group boarded the vessel – a Russian research vessel. Our group was led by wildlife photography superstars, Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting, in addition to our own Shem Compion and our Australian partner, Denis Glennon. Everyone was very excited to spend 18 days at sea with these legends! Excitement quickly got the better of us as everyone made it to the to top deck to see the ship slowly sailing away from Ushuaia.
21 November 2014
Reality set in as we woke up to rough seas on the open waters towards the Falkland Islands. We would have a few “traveling” days on the open waters between the various destinations on this trip, which was a great chance to attend lectures by the crew and our our photographic guides. During the whole trip there were not one minute anyone could claim to have been bored. In addition to the lectures it was also a great chance to start photographing the wildlife wonders of the Southern Ocean. The best place to photograph Prions, Albatrosses and Skuas was from the stern. The rough sea made for a steep learning curve to balance on the rocking ship and tracking these birds though the viewfinder as they swoop past the back in repetitive patterns. We were blessed with a dramatic sunset and the wonderful prospect of arriving at our first stop, the Falkland Islands, the next morning.
22 November 2014
After a full day at sea everyone was excited about the prospect of photographing penguins today. Our morning excursion was to a small island with a massive colony of Black-browed Albatrosses and Rockhopper Penguins. Excursions work like this: You dress warmly with wellingtons and your bright red wetskins as a top layer. Then you make your way to the gangway (a construction with steps on the side of the ship). You carefully make your way down the gangway and then step carefully into the zodiac that is waiting down below. Each zodiac takes 10 people. When you sit in the zodiac your main concern is keeping your camera bag dry, especially with rough seas when spray and waves splashes water on you. The zodiac cruise to the shore, or wherever the excursion is, is quite fun and being so exposed makes you connect to the wilderness and wildness of the Southern Ocean. Landings are mostly onto beaches where you have to get your timing right in order to only step into ankle-deep water and then onto the sand. The staff was incredible in making sure everyone was safe and, no matter how old or capable, everyone could participate in every excursion. Once on the beach, a quick orientation by the staff and then by our photo guides made sure that everyone were safe and knew where to go and explore to make the most of the limited time, and to get great photos. As a photographic tour we were given permission to have extended excursions, varying from 3 to 6 hours to make the most of the photographic opportunities. When time is up and you have to get back to the ship, the routine is pretty much the same, but in reverse. When you step back onto the ship your first task is to clean your shoes and wetskins to eliminate any spread of plants or organisms between the landing sites. During this morning excursion we were overwhelmed by our first sight of these massive colonies of birds. During lunch on the ship we sailed to another island for an afternoon excursion where we were blessed with stunning golden afternoon light. Here we photographed colonies of Gentoo Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins, a few King and Magellanic Penguins and more Black-browed Albatrosses. The memory cards filled quickly and we just could not wait for what the next days would show us!
23 November 2014
Our second day on the Falklands was spent on the mainland where we docked at Stanley in the morning and drove up to a beach at the north of the island. This was a 2 hour journey just to get there. Here we found a colony of King Penguins on the beach and in the green grass. The weather was not kind with a slight drizzle and wind but we made the most of the opportunity. After returning to Stanley there was a chance to do a last minute shop for weather-proof gear, sweets and souvenirs before sailing to South Georgia, the highlight of the trip!
24 November 2014
We woke up to relatively calm seas but the remoteness of our position started to set in with only petrels, albatrosses and other sea birds to keep us company. This was the first full day at sea from the Falkslands on our way to South Georgia. Between attending lectures from the researchers and photographers on the vessel there was time for some bird photography from the back of the ship. I also found that the bridge was an excellent place to observe and talk “birds” with Dick Filby, the professional bird guide. Visits to the Moi-stick (bridge in Russian) would become a regular activity for my cabin mate, Duncan and me. The program on the ship is pretty full, starting and ending in the bar. At 7:00 it’s morning smoothies for the health nuts and at the end of the day, at 21:30 there is a casual talk by one of the staff, but this time with something stronger in hand.
25 November 2014
Another day at sea with more lectures and bird photography from the stern. In the late afternoon we passed “Shag rocks” that are a couple of rocks sticking out from the ocean in the middle of nowhere. It is aptly named for the shags (cormorants) and seals that nest and breed there. We are getting closer to South Georgia and it is exciting to know that tomorrow morning we’ll be there!
26 November 2014
We were up early for an excursion even before breakfast. It was the sight outside our window that took our breath away though – A wild mountain covered in snow and as if almost shot straight out from underneath the Southern Ocean. This is South Georgia that many people describe as THE wildlife mecca on planet earth. We are finally here and the scenery is breathtaking. We anchored in a bay called Elsehul and conditions were wild. The swells were rough and the beach small and patrolled by fur seals. These seals are big and aggressive and would try to bite you when they get a chance. This is probably one of the reasons it’s been 15 years since any of the crew last managed to do a landing here. Tripod legs are good tools to keep the fur seals away though. Some of us managed to make the beach landing and climb up a steep slippery hill to observe and photograph some of the few Grey-headed Albatrosses nesting up there. Truly a unique and remote experience and great way to connect with nature at the start of the South Georgia stint of our journey. The afternoon excursion was to Salisbury Plain – one of the most iconic spots on these islands. We were blessed with stunning clear skies for the afternoon photography and an excursion time of almost 6 hours – FANTASTIC! On this extended beach, flat land with streams, grass and hills surrounded by dramatic mountains and glaciers you can see King Penguins as far as the eye can see. For the penguins the beach is a hive of activity and they come and go – the gateway to food on the ocean side and penguin nests on the flat land and against the slopes of the hills. The shear numbers packed together can only be described as a mosaic of colours and shapes and it’s hard to figure out where to start your afternoon of photography. The 6 hours of photography went by much too fast and soon I found myself on the zodaic back to the ship at the end of the day. At that stage my only thoughts were that this was one of my best days ever spent in nature! We can’t wait to see what the next days will deliver!
27 November 2014
This day was just as exciting as the previous. Our morning excursion was to Fortuna Bay where we were blessed with soft falling snow. Not only did it cover the ground and backdrop in a beautiful white carpet but the effect of the falling snow also created a magical effect in the photos. Although there were not nearly as much wildlife here compared to yesterday’s landing, there were plenty of seals and penguins to photograph. A nursery of King Penguins was 15 minutes walk away from the beach and had the high peaks of a mountain as a spectacular backdrop. In the afternoon we went to Grytviken, the abandoned whaling station where Shackleton’s grave is. Apart from having the option to explore the museum and rusty buildings there were also lots of seals and penguins to photograph. The day finished with a braai (barbecue) under pink skies on the stern of the ship, anchored at Grytviken.
28 November 2014
Our last day in South Georgia arrived and finished on a highlight with an extended morning excursion to Gold Harbour. Gold Harbour is one of the iconic wildlife hotspots in South Georgia and similar to the other spots with penguins and seals as far as the eye can see. We found a nice vantage point where we looked upon a nursery of thousands of King Penguins chicks packed tightly together. Good sunlight backlit the fluffy chicks for a great photographic effect. The morning excursion was so long that it left us with limited time for the afternoon activity – a zodiac cruise into Larson Harbour and then a cruise into Drygalski Fjord. There was great excitement as we saw, and heard a singing South Georgia Pipit. This was not only a rare sighting but also proof that the rat eradication programme at South Georgia is successful and bringing these endemic birds back to all corners of the island. From here, it’s open ocean again for a few days until we reach Antarctica!
29 November 2014
Today was the first of two full days at sea again. These days provide great opportunities to attend some talks by the experts and also delete some photos to make space on the hard drive for the next exciting photographic stint!
30 November 2014
Today was another full day at sea where the lectures and photo review sessions were interrupted by exciting bird photography from the stern. We have all become real experts by having our “sea legs” provide stable support to track and follow birds in flight from the back of the ship. The waves in the background are very contrasty requiring tracking precision in order to keep the focus on the birds.
1 December 2014
1 December is ANTARCTICA DAY and it happened to be our first sights of this continent. We reached Elephant Island in the morning and took a slow cruise around the island. In the afternoon the conditions allowed us to do a landing on the island – a first for the crew in many years. This was the exact spot where Shackleton’s men were left when the captain went looking for help. The history was just as exciting as the actual landing where we got to see a Leopard Seal and photograph our first Chinstrap Penguins. We could not stay long though and soon we were back on the ship sailing deeper into Antarctic waters.
2 December 2014
We are very far South and the days are getting noticeably longer. That idea became reality when the expedition leader announced a brilliant sunrise at 3am and most of us managed to make it out on the deck with cameras and lenses. The wind was icy cold though and we got our first glimpse of big icebergs (backlit by the rising sun). In the morning we did a cruise in the Antarctic Sound where we got to photograph water and ice from the deck in perfect, glassy water conditions. The afternoon excursion was a landing at Brown Bluff. There we not only added another continent to the list, but we were offered brilliant photography of Adele and Gentoo Penguins in a stunning location. The day ended on a high note when we learned during dinner that two of your clients actually got engaged during the afternoon excursion.
3 December 2014
Our day started really early again but I’ve never seen such enthusiastic photographers so early in the morning. Our day involved a zodiac cruise amongst icebergs in the morning where we managed to capture the different shades of blue of the floating ice. I was surprised at how calm the water was and how much fun photographing ice and the occasional penguin and seal was. During the afternoon we did a cruise to the famous and scenic Wilhelmina Bay. Again we were blessed with perfect weather and after filling the memory cards with ice, mountains, and landscapes it was time for another braai on the stern of the ship under clear skies. This would be the furtherest South we would be so this night was going to be shortest and brightest one of the trip. In fact, sunset was at 23:15 and sunrise at 02:45. It never got dark. The twilight of the evening blended into the twilight of the early morning. The few die-hard photographers that made it to 01:30 were blessed with incredible soft pink and purple light over the snowy mountains and stunning landscapes for photography. All of this was further enhanced by the full moon!
4 December 2014
With landscape photography going into the early morning hours it was difficult to get focused and sharp when the alarm went off, but the quality of the two excursion for today quickly got us into the right frame of mind again. Neko Harbour and Cuverville Island are both stunning, hilly spots with colonies of Gentoo Penguins. Both spots have stunning mountain backdrops and with the snow-covered ground almost every angle could create a pleasing artistic composition. In fact, that’s exactly why our trip was scheduled for early summer, so that we could have this snow-covered ground and “clean” penguins. The camera shutters worked overtime again and we were all very happy with another stunning day in Antarctica!
5 December 2014
We’ve become used to looking out the window and seeing icebergs when you wake up and today was no exception. It was unfortunately our last day in Antarctica and after today we had 2 days of sailing ahead of us, crossing the Drake passage back to Ushuaia. Our morning excursion was to Whaler’s Bay, another old abandoned whaling station. We were told that there were not much wildlife to be photographed there so without any expectation I was surprised at the stunning opportunities we got for photographing Cape Petrels, sleeping in the snow with falling snow in the background. The slight snowfall turned into a storm as we made our way back to the ship. Our last landing for the trip in the afternoon was another highlight. We went to Halfmoon Island and the shear beauty of the environment took our breath away. This must be the same feeling golfers get that see Augusta National for the first time! On top of it we had stunning conditions with light snow falling, that made for stunning photos of the colonies for Chinstrap and Adele Penguins. With memory cards full it was the perfect ending to the perfect trip and we had good reason to celebrate back on the ship.
6-8 December 2014
I don’t know what was worse, the feeling that we were heading back to Ushuaia and our trip was over, or the prospect of crossing the Drake Passage. We had been warned to take motion sickness tablets and to brace ourselves. But, almost disappointingly we experienced rather calm seas by comparison and we could fill our day with photo reviews, lectures and some bird photography from the stern for the die-hard photographers. We still had another day of sailing ahead of us the next day!
On the 7th we had our last day at sea and it was a good time to reflect on our trip. There were many highlights:
* Seeing the unspoiled wilderness of the Southern Ocean where you are very far removed from civilisation. It almost feels like you were on another planet.
* The amount of wildlife we saw on the Falklands, South Georgia specifically and the Antarctic Peninsula is breathtaking and something that cannot be explained
* Sharing this adventure with many known and new friends that have a passion for both nature and photography
* The ice, landscapes, long days and clean air cannot be seen anywhere else on this planet. These are just to name a few…
We managed to reach Cape Horn in the afternoon which marked the end of a very uneventful Drake Passage Crossing. Now, it’s back into the Buegel Channel where we’ll dock tonight and then the next morning we will pull into the harbour in Ushuaia.
On the 8th we woke up, finished packing, had breakfast and then it was time for goodbyes. Many new friends made and an incredible experience that we will never forget! It felt strange to be back in civilisation. Here are my top 2 tips for anyone interested in such a trip:
* Take a lot of vitamin-C with. It seems that once someone on the ship gets the flu, everyone will eventually get their turn. That is, except for those with a good immune system thanks to their daily intake of Vitamin C!
* Travel light with lenses and cameras. If you shoot Nikon I recommend a camera with a 24-70mm lens and a camera with an 80-400mm lens. If you shoot Canon I recommend a camera with a 24-105mm lens and a camera with a 100-400mm lens. Imagine walking a whole day carrying and photographing with this combo. Anything more will become too heavy and cumbersome and the quality of your photographs will suffer as a result.
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