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photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

Antarctica, Round 5

if at first you don’t succeed…

in Antarctica , Tuesday, February 04, 2020

On Saturday I finally got home after leaving King George island, Antarctica on Wednesday afternoon. A long trip even if for the first time it involved flying over the Drake Passage rather than being thrown all over a ship for 3 miserable days.

Hans Hansson in Antarctica

So, this was my fifth visit to Antarctica, and third as a tourist, and this time it was pretty intense. Sharing the small ship Hans Hansson with 9 other passengers, 2 guides and 6 crew is a lot more intimate than a cruise ship or research vessel. And the flexibility of a small ship meant reaching little visited locations, and also visiting more popular spots outside of regular hours. With up to three three to four hour landings per day, over 12 days, what little downtime we had was very welcome. The ship is owned and operated by Quixote Expeditions, and was chartered by Visionary Wild. Both companies showed the highest level of professionalism and dedication to excellence, both before and during the trip, with all staff and crew being very friendly and approachable.

Without really wanting to single anybody out, I have to mention Justin Black, founder of Visionary Wild. Justin is a model of what every phototour leader should aspire to. Apart from, incidentally, being an excellent photographer, he was a fantastic leader, always available to help with anything, keeping everybody safe but unconstrained, and proactively ensuring that everybody was happy. His co-leader, Daisy Gilardini, a photographer with well over 20 Antarctic tours to her name, was equally supportive, and in particular able to lend her expertise to the enthusiastic, if not obsessive wildlife photographers that made up 8/10ths of the clientele.

And those 8/10ths were the only slight problem from my point of view, as I am absolutely not an obsessive wildlife photographer. So I did sometimes get frustrated when the odd iceberg was pronounced totally uninteresting because it didn’t have a bloody penguin nailed to it. Being more a kind of ambient landscape person myself, and also fascinated by the human footprint on Antarctica, I have to say at times I just put the cameras down. This was compounded by the fact that I’m continuing to go through a very dark patch photographically speaking, and I only really got into some sort of groove in the last two days, where we were being forced by strong winds to find some very out of the way locations. Generally if I were to consider only photography as a measure, then for me personally this trip was an abject failure and a massive wasted opportunity (and particularly a very rare close up encounter with a playful leopard seal which I completely failed to capture). Fortunately, I don’t live for photography, and on the upside, it was wonderful to see my very photographically modest partner Luchiana suddenly blossom into a very fine photographer, putting assorted Leica, Nikon and Sony mega-camera owners to shame with her simple travel zoom Canon.  It’s always been latent, but now she has received plaudits she cannot dismiss.

As for the what worked, what didn’t work part… well, my Atlas Athlete backpack was fantastic, being flexible enough for full day mountain treks in Patagonia as well as onshore and Zodiac work in Antarctica. A fully dedicated camera bag might have been slightly better in Antarctica, but it is very marginal, and would have been a nightmare for trekking. I continue to be impressed by Sealskin gloves, even though I suffer from chronically cold hands (but never feet). On the camera side, the Olympus E-M1 Mkii pair gave the usual Jekyll & Hyde performance - working fine all day then suddenly absolutely refusing to focus the moment something ultra interesting came along. This might have been down to the new 2x Teleconverter on the 40-150 lens, but generally this worked very well. As usual the Olympus manages sometimes to get into completely mystifying modes now and then, but possibly this has to do with too many buttons and clumsy gloves. At times I was ready to throw the whole damn lot in the ocean, but mindful of IATO rules in pollution and the fact that I can’t think of any other system which I’d hate a bit less, I didn’t.  Certainly I didn’t envy the laughably huge 400 and 600mm full frame lenses my companions were touting, even if I have to admit they are less heavy than they look. As is the Fuji GFX100 which Justin was using, but that camera lives in a different universe to me.

So here I am with 5800 more photos from Antarctica, mostly crap, and nearly 1000 from Patagonia, and I still haven’t completed my edit of 3000 from Greenland or indeed 1600-odd from Madeira. I think I’ve got enough photos for now.

So, will there be a sixth Antarctic trip? At present I doubt it. The piggy bank is gutted, and anywhere there are other places to see. Even Antarctica is now beginning to suffer from mass tourism, with vast cruise ships lining up through the Neumayer Channel and around Paradise Bay.

But never say never…

 

Two photographs

the bottom of the barrel

in Antarctica , Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Over the weekend I brushed off these two photos from the archive and printed them on Hahnemuhle Bamboo paper. They look fabulous - to me, anyway.

Both were taken nearly 30 years ago looking over the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica, on Kodachrome 64 with a Canon FT which I had only the vaguest idea how to use, back in the day when I thought photography was too hard for the likes of me. I suspect, looking back, that my fascination for photographing delicately coloured sky had a lot to do with my then infatuation with medieval manuscript illuminations, which often feature such skies. Then again...

damoy biscoe 1.jpg



damoy pink 1.jpg


 

An experiment

(insert pun on spark here)

in Antarctica , Sunday, February 05, 2017

So, I've been have a bit of a play with Adobe Spark, which offers the opportunity, it says here, to "Easily create beautiful images, videos, and web pages that help tell your own story". Sounds promising. Here's my first attempt.

Adobe Spark Page

The complete lack of any kind of manual is a bit irritating - how hard could it be to provide something ? - but it seems all quite straightforward. It doesn't appear possible to customise themes much, if at all, for example by change text font or colour, but I suppose that is to save me from making horrendous style decisions.

Maybe I'll do some more...
 

In search of the Emperor Penguin

see those dots on the horizon there ?

in Antarctica , Sunday, January 01, 2017

At the end of November, we set off on a 10 day "expedition cruise" operated by Oceanwide Expeditions, branded as "Search for the Emperor Penguin". The cruise, aboard the M/V Ortelius, was to head into the northernmost region of the Weddell Sea, and hopefully reach Snow Hill Island, where a number of Emperor penguin colonies had been discovered some years previously. Snow Hill Island is actually well out of what was usually understood as the range of the Emperor, being well North of the Antarctic Circle. The colony had been reached twice before by tourist operations, several times by the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov chartered by Quark Expeditions, and once by Ortelius itself in 2013. Ortelius is quite an unusual Antarctic cruise ship in that it has a helideck and hangar, and enough space for 2 to 3 helicopters. In this case, 2 were carried. The ideal situation would be that the ship would be able to get close enough to Snow Hill island to be able to use the helicopters to ferry passengers to a location on the sea ice at least 2km distant from the colonies, from where they would be reached on foot. This is a pretty ambitious plan - with a lot to go wrong. It appeared than a significant proportion of the passengers did not really realise quite how ambitious it actually was, and how low the chances of success were.

In order to succeed, the following ducks needed to be in a neat row:
- ship able to reach within approx 40km of the landing target
- adequate visibility for safe helicopter operation
- low enough windspeed for safe helicopter operation
- calm sea conditions
- penguin colonies actually there
- sea ice conditions suitable for safe travel by complete amateurs

In the past years, very few of the conditions had been met. Up until 2016 Oceanwide had 4 attempts at carrying this through, with a success rate of just 1 actual landing (if I understand correctly). This time round, absolutely everything worked out fine ... except for the last point. The Ortelius encountered open water for almost all of Admiralty Sound, but the remaining sea ice, where the colonies are located, turned out to be in very poor state. In several areas there were surface pools, along with areas which looked recently refrozen, and there were many rifts and cracks. A little to the south there was open water into the Weddell Sea, as far as the eye could see. Possibly it might have been feasible for experienced sea ice travellers to make a safe traverse, but no way could 110 blundering tourists be unloaded. Furthermore the helicopter crews did not feel that the ice would reliably support the weight of a helicopter.

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M/V Ortelius up against the sea ice west of Snow Hill island, with Lockyer Island in the background.



So, sadly, that was that. There were a lot of very unhappy punters on board, but while it was natural to be disappointed, a lot of people seemed to think they were on a day trip to Disneyland or something. Antarctic operations, especially tourist cruises, need to take a very conservative approach to safety. Anything that goes wrong would very likely go wrong very badly. There was perhaps a significant lack of timely information and explanation provided by the staff, which didn't help the atmosphere, but that in itself changed nothing so far as conditions were concerned.

Everybody did at least get an overflight of the colonies, and spotted a few solitary emperors on sea ice near to the ship. These in themselves are experiences that very few people have had, but these days it seems that expectations run ridiculously high. The desire to grab photographic trophies to post on Facebook or wherever blinds people from the richness of actual experiences.

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Emperor penguin colony from the air (the dots on the right). Being British (well, sort of), I obeyed the rules and didn't take a telephoto lens in the helicopter.



As it turned out, the colonies appeared to be thriving. As I understand it, we expected to find 3, in fact there were 5. I'm not sure how much longer this will be the case though. By the look of things the sea ice is very vulnerable. Very strong currents run through Admiralty Sound between Snow Hill and James Ross Island, which I assume are driven by the Weddell Sea gyre, and if there is a complete breakup in a summer season, it is hard to see how it will recover. Multiyear ice seems to be very sparse. The breakup of the Larsen A & B ice shelves in the same region has been partly blamed on rising surface water temperatures, so the outlook cannot be good. With no sea ice there will be no penguins.

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Emperor penguin on the sea ice edge



The standard price of this trip is, for the lowest standard two berth cabin we had, $13K per person. Fortunately we got an extremely reduced offer, or I would not be writing this. I get a reasonable salary, but $13K for a 10 day trip is way beyond reality, never mind pain threshold. Oceanwide expeditions is a good company, and they are quite open about the chances of success - meaning physically reaching the emperor colonies - but unless it is something you really, really want to do, and are prepared to take a big gamble, there are much better Antarctic cruises on offer at very significantly lower prices, including with Oceanwide. Helicopters don't come cheap.

 

Riders on the storm

f8 and be there

in Antarctica , Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Every once in a while there comes along a photo which will just stick in my head. Some of them I didn't even actually take - there's a fantastic shot I have from New Zealand 15 years ago which I didn't actually take - but in the case I did.

The location is the Antarctic Sound, 2 weeks ago. There was an absolutely insane storm blowing, with unearthly lighting that I'll never manage to convince anybody isn't Photoshopped. The ship was being blown through an expanse of tabular icebergs, providing non-stop shots of a lifetime, provided you could find somewhere to wedge yourself in to avoid getting flattened by the wind or thrown over the side by the motion.

Most people had, sensibly, retired to somewhere sheltered with things to hang on to, and sturdy paper bags nearby. We hung on. And then this happened - an iceberg, loaded with frantic Adelie penguins careened crazily past. There cannot have been more than 30 seconds to grab a shot, but for once I kept my wits about me and got four. Here's one of them. Ok, yeah, it isn't absolutely pin sharp at 100%, but I'll take it.

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