Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.


An accidental photgrapher in Antarctica (revisited)

A slightly revised article written quite a while ago, rescued from the old site.

in essay , Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sometime shortly after Noah’s Ark ran aground, in early 1984 I was working in my first job in Cranfield, England. Whilst it was more or less related to my university education, it wasn’t very exciting. One day, I picked up a copy of New Scientist at lunchtime, and found a job advertised for a “radio echo sounding research assistant” at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in nearby Cambridge. The pay was peanuts, but it sounded interesting, so I applied. And to my surprise I got the job. I had never really thought about Antarctica. Several of my friends at University had desperately wanted to join BAS, with no success. And I just sort of stumbled in. Some time later I remembered that when I was around 10 I went through a phase of reading books about epic polar explorers, but I had completely forgotten this. So there it was - a defining moment in many ways, as it turned out.

Canon lens cap embedded in the Ronne Ice Shelf, circa February 1988

I visited Antarctica twice, once in 1987/88 with BAS, once in 1991/92 with the Norwegian-led Aurora Programme, under a European Space Agency research activity. I have to say that BAS, certainly at that time, was very British. No women, stiff upper lip, yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir. With my ever characteristic inability to respect blind authority, coupled with some very frustrating work circumstances, I ended up pretty unpopular with some of the hierarchy. To be fair, the hierarchy had a point, to some extent, but it was significant that several other people had similar issues and none of them were British. The Norwegian “total chaos” approach was far better suited to my character, and my professional output was far better in those circumstances.

Rocky ridge emerging from the ice, towering over Damoy Hut (the dot in the snow, left side)

The accidental path that led me to Antarctica was mirrored by my equal innocence about photography. BAS in the late 1980s was (and almost certainly still is) as much a camera club as a science lab. Everybody was a camera nut, and coffee break discussions were as likely to be Canon v. Nikon as the latest discoveries in polar science. Naturally there was the odd Minolta and Leica fan around too - not to mention a small but vociferous Olympus OM clique. Everybody was filling up every spare space in equipment cases with film stashes. Eventually I realised I ought to get involved in all this, and I started to panic. What on earth were all these numbers about ? F-stops ? Shutter speeds, manual, spot, apertures ? I had no idea, and certain friends (hi, Rick) were beginning to get annoyed with me. I “borrowed” my father’s camera and lenses, which turned out to have “Canon” written on them. Another accidental choice that defined my choice of equipment for many years forward. So I had a Canon FT QL, and a handful of lenses, including a Canon 50mm f1.4, a Vivitar 200mm zoom, and what I now know was a grotesque fish eye adaptor but at the time I thought was pretty cool. The camera expired some years ago, from terminal neglect, but the lenses are still around. Even the fisheye.

Mountains above Port Lockroy, through the grotesque fisheye adaptor

I have approximately 3000 slides from Antarctica, mostly Kodachrome 64, with some K25 and some Ektachrome, because it seemed the right thing to do. Of the 3000, maybe 30 or so are reasonable photos, and of these, approximately 10 have survived being carelessly stored over the last 15 years. Only around the late 90s, when I got my first film scanner, did I wake up to the scourge of slide emulsion fungus. Of course in “travelogue” terms, there are a lot more than 30 interesting slides, and as far a personal mementoes are concerned they’re almost all interesting. Such is the level of interest in Antarctica that I was frequently asked to present slide shows. It was from conversations arising from these that I ended deciding to write this article.

Worried penguin, Rothera Base. Antarctica is a land of high contrasts.

Photography in Antarctica is technically tricky. Landscapes are often highly contrasted between the white of the snow, the dark rocks, the water and the sky. The wildlife is contrasty too - penguins are black and white, pretty much. In the vast expanses of the great ice shelves, the world is two colours: blue and white. To cope with all this I had the built in selenium cell centre weighted meter of the Canon FT, where I had to line up a needle with a circle. I’m pretty sure I didn’t really grasp why I had to do this - never mind understood that the camera thought snow was a neutral gray! Given this it is remarkable that anything worked. Certainly various people gave me tips on exposure at various times, but at the same time it does illustrate that you can sometimes get by blissfully ignorant of the “rules” and mechanics.

In many, if not most of my photographs, especially those taken in the interior, the weather is not very good. This isn’t because the weather is very bad in Antarctica - simply that when you’re there to work, a good weather day is a work day. Photography days are bad weather days. Since bad weather often translates to interesting conditions for photography, this is not always a drawback. But once again, I didn’t know that at the time!

The traditional way of getting to Antarctica is by sea. Certainly in the mid-80s it was the only realistic way of getting to the Antarctic Peninsula. This meant crossing the Drake Passage, which can be a fearsome experience. In fact, in 1987, due to various circumstances, I left from Port Stanley in the Falklands, crossed the Drake Passage to the South Orkney Islands, crossed back to Port Stanley, and then finally back again to Deception Island and the Peninsula.

Sea ice inside the Deception Island caldera

This is more or less the itinerary taken by tourist ships (although without the doubling back!). Further travel in 87/88 was by aircraft, a Twin Otter fitted with skis. In 91/92, the route was far less travelled, going from Monetvideo in Uruguay non-stop to the south Weddell Sea. This was more or less the route travelled by Shackleton’s Endurance, and we were perhaps fortunate not to suffer the same fate. All this travelling gave plenty of opportunity for photography.

Iceberg off the coast of Graham Land

The potential for landscape photography is endless along the Peninsula and in the South Atlantic islands. On the Weddell Sea coast, which is fringed by ice caps and ice shelves, there is little other than snow, ice and water. The weather along the Peninsula is frequently bad, but can sometimes clear to an absolutely breathtaking clarity. To take advantage of this, you need to be in the right place at the right time. In 1987, I was “stuck” for 6 weeks at one of the most photogenic places in Antarctica. Wiencke Island is home to vast numbers of Gentoo penguins, and is surrounded by awesome scenery.

On the beach, Wiencke Island.

Mt Fran├žais, the highest mountain in the Peninsula, towers over the Neumayer Channel. The historic base of Port Lockroy was in sight but frustratingly out of reach. All this just outside the front door. That I managed a few reasonable photos was more by luck than judgement… Most of my slides are affected by dreadful vignetting, and blur due to the lack of any tripod or technique. It is tempting to say it was a wasted opportunity, but since I wasn’t really aware that I was interested in photography in those days, it isn’t really true.

Mt Fran├žais, on Anvers Island, across the Neumayer Channel

As I said before, a lot of the interior of Antarctica is less photogenic. It is none the less fascinating, and some unique sights are to be found. But the overall impression in the middle of one of the great ice shelves, on a good weather day at least, is of White, Blue, and total stillness and silence.

Sea ice-filled rift on the Ronne Ice Shelf. The ice shelf here is about 500m thick. It’s floating.

Penguins: the number 1 association in most peoples minds with Antarctica. And polar bears of course. Antarctica can be a paradise for wildlife photographers. Wildlife is plentiful, at least in coastal zones, fascinating, and approachable. Apart from penguins of all shapes and forms, there are various varieties of seals - Weddell, Leopard, Fur, Elephant, the last three which can be seen at close quarters on land (although not too close - “approachable” does NOT mean “friendly”. These animals bite, big time). Birds are everywhere, from the huge and fascinating wandering alabatross to the tiny and perhaps even more fascinating Wilson’s petrel. Not to mention that airborne menace, the brown skua.

Weddell Sea on sea ice near the Brunt Ice Shelf

The best place to see a lot of this wildlife on the “tourist trail” is actually South Georgia. Although it is included in many tourist ship iteneraries of Antarctica, this usually involves a quick stopover at Grytviken. South Georgia is worth much more than this. One day, maybe… A wonderful account of South Georgia is given by Tim an Pauline Carr, in their book Antarctic Oasis. Pedants would argue that it isn’t in the Antarctic, but whatever.

Fur seal pup, near Grytviken, South Georgia

So, penguins. I know that’s what you’re here for. Everybody ends up with their favourite penguin variety. Mine is the Gentoo, with the Adelie a close second. Gentoos are plentiful in the Antarctic Peninsula, so these, along with King Penguins, are the ones most likely to be seen. Gentoos are quite small but very endearing. They have the classic penguin shape, a red beak, and a white flash above their eyes.

Gentoo penguin, Wiencke Island.

Note that the photo above was taken with a 50mm lens. You can get as close as you want to penguins on land, as they have no land-borne natural predators - just seals in the water and skuas in the air. This does not, however, mean that they will not be worried or stressed, simply that they have no “run away” mechanism gentically programmed in this case. The Antarctic Treaty lays down strict regulations on wildlife protection, and at least at BAS any violation of this was a serious disciplinary offence. I believe most responsible tourism companies follow these guidelines. Antarctic wildlife (actually, pretty much all wildlife) has a hard enough time without humans making it worse.

The local immigration officials turn up for an inspection

Having said this, it is impossible to not get involved with Adelie penguins. These characters, generally found further south than Gentoos, are irrepressibly inquisitive. They come into buildings, into tents, anywhere. They are vastly entertaining, but can end up a bit annoying after a while.

The star act of the penguin world is the Emperor. These birds are about 1.3m tall, and are the only variety to spend the winter in Antarctica. I’m tempted to say “stupid enough to”, because compared with Adelies they don’t seem too bright, at least on land, but when you see them swimming underwater, it all makes sense. Emperors are the fastest swimmers, the deepest divers, and really one of the most remarkable species on the planet.

Emperor penguins on sea ice, Prinz Luipolt Coast.

Recommendations for visiting Antarctica

Finally, a few tips for people who want to visit Antarctica. If you can, get a job there: it’s much cheaper. Tourist travel is offered by many companies, using purpose designed cruise ships such as MV World Discoverer (for the very rich), slightly updated Russian research vessels, such as Akademik Shokalskiy, which are built to last (for the slightly less rich), and a variety of specialist operators (for the slightly crazy and rich). The Russian and associated variety are often the best bet: they are better in sea ice, and can get further south. However, one thing to bear in mind, especially in the Drake Passage, is that icebreakers are NOT optimised for stability in stormy seas. Stay in your bunk and close your eyes. Try to find a tour that concentrates on the Peninsula. Find a ship that goes through Lemaire Channel (aka “Kodak Crack”, although I guess these days it should be “Megapixel Maw”). The sub-Antarctic islands are nice enough, but be warned, they involve long, boring sea passages, and are generally on the itinerary because they are easier to get to. If you want to see Emperor penguins, you’ll have to go up a notch and find a specialist operator such as Adventure Network International. You’ll need to be Bill Gates though.

So do I agree with Antarctic tourism? Well it is a controversial subject, but on the whole, yes. Whilst tourism increases the risk of a major environmental disaster, the more people who get the chance to see these regions, the greater the pressure will be on politicians to protect them. Responsible tourism advocated by bodies such as IAATO seems ok to me. Antarctica is often called a “continent for Science”, but, finally, it’s much, much more than that.

Credits: a big thank you to Rick Frolich for all the advice those many years ago, to Julian Paren for telling me which way to point the camera, to Mike Collins for the laughs, and to Chris Doake for giving me the job in the first place and for encouragement and support thereafter. And, much later, to Michael Reichmann and Daniel Bergmann for showing me the value of the “crop” tool.

Posted in category "essay" on Tuesday, February 10, 2009 at 10:41 PM

Older Comments

from Captain Interesting on Wed, May 27, 2009 - 8:43

Great essay and photos - particularly the one taken with the grotesque fish-eye lens. Maybe you could dust it off, take it out, and give it another try….. My thesis is that the Alps are really a kind of proxy Arctic/Antarctic, though without the penguins. As you know, we have Yetis though ....

from Dhamphy on Tue, September 01, 2009 - 3:52

I love the penguin pictures. Just so relaxing

from Mikael on Mon, May 02, 2011 - 7:10

Beautiful! Love the landscape shots!

/ Mikael
Mikael Cedergren Photography - Portrait, Artist and Landscape Photography