For Photographers, All Ships Are Not Created Equal

By Joe Van Os on Aug 30, 2012

Over the past 20 years we’ve offered numerous exclusively-chartered photography cruises to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, Greenland, Spitsbergen—and, next summer to the Siberian Coast and Wrangel Island. And throughout our 20-year history of operating these cruises, every cruise has been fully booked!

There’s a good reason for that. No other company offers fully-dedicated small-ship photography cruises (exclusively for our photographer clients) to these areas, or provides the extended amount of time on shore, or with the photo subjects while shooting from the ship, than we do. Sure, there are “photography trips” available to the Arctic and Antarctic on larger ships where a small percentage of the clients can access the designated photography leader—but the photographers onboard follow the same itinerary and limited shore time schedule as the rest of the ship’s non-photographer/general interest passengers. Or, you can travel in “boats” that carry 10–15 passengers, with extremely cramped cabins (and very little space to stow your gear), that are not stout enough to penetrate areas of thicker Arctic pack ice where polar bears and seals dwell—and are so small they offer truly “memorable” moments at sea when tossed around in polar storms.

Because we virtually always use ships of a certain size and class—typically vessels accommodating 50–80 passengers, that are comfortable, but certainly not luxurious—I am often asked why we choose the ships that we do.

Selecting a ship is, on a grander scale, similar to choosing to travel with us (or another company) as a participant: We offer a comprehensive itinerary that provides enough time and flexibility for photographers to accomplish their photographic goals. And when we charter a ship, we make sure that ship will allow us to carry out those photographic goals. While creature comforts on board are very important to us, your safety and our ability to provide the best photography opportunities are even more important.

So what is the criterion we use in selecting a ship for charter?

1. Our history of doing business with the ship charter company. There is nothing worse than finding out, in the field, that the ship and crew are not in tune with the needs of photographers and that the ship will not provide the services that were promised by the ship company’s sales staff. Because Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris has been in business for more than 30 years we were around in the early days of Antarctic cruises—when there were only two expedition ships traveling to the area, Lindblad Explorer and the World Discoverer. Over the years we became (and remain) friends with many of the expedition cruise ship providers, and we were photo cruise pioneers at the time many small Russian ships became available for expedition travel at the end of the Cold War. In those “good old days,” a ship charter deal could be made by a handshake alone. These days charter contracts are much more complicated, deposits are huge, and we want to be sure of the economic health of that company before we make that deposit.

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Maneuvering a ship as close to shore as possible minimizes time spent traveling by Zodiac from ship to shore and back.

2. Knowing the ship’s Captain. Knowing who will Captain the ship is essential for providing a great photography trip. Are they familiar with the itinerary and the landing locations? Do they know how to position the ship to get it as close to shore as safely possible to minimize travel distances during open sea Zodiac commutes to shore—keeping passengers and camera gear as dry as possible? Do they have a lot of experience and confidence taking the ship into pack ice? Are they good to their crew (the general ambience on board ship is pleasant because of a happy crew)? Are they willing to change plans quickly because photography conditions have changed? Are they enthusiastic about where they are going and what they are seeing? Do they encourage their bridge staff to be good wildlife spotters? Are they skilled enough to approach wildlife on the ice with the ship without frightening or harassing it?

3. Knowing the flexibility of the “hotel” staff on the ship. There is probably no bigger problem on board a ship doing a photo cruise than the schedule around meals. On the vast majority of ships—particularly on the general interest polar cruises where a photo leader guides a small group within a larger group of tourists—mealtime takes precedence and all passengers must be back to the ship no matter how good the photography may be on shore. We look for ships that will give us exceptional flexibility and will delay mealtimes or even let passengers skip cooked meals (and later provide sandwich fixings and other snacks when we return to the ship) if some of us occasionally want to stay out when light is good.

4. The ship allows lengthy landing times. For the majority of Arctic and Antarctic voyages, the turn-around time—from the time most passengers depart the ship by Zodiac for a landing until the time they return to the ship—is around 3 hours. (It’s been determined by most polar cruise companies that travelers tend to lose interest on shore after 3 hours or so.) They then sail on to another landing spot and repeat that pattern. By contrast, we attempt to land at locations rich in photography subject matter where as long as 6–12 hours might be required to fully realize the wildlife and landscape photo opportunities of that location. Of course, throughout our long shore stays we provide clients the opportunity to return to the ship to eat, warm up, use the toilet facilities or download photos. When you travel to these areas to photograph, it is the amount and quality of the time you have during the landings to explore and photograph—and not a marathon to get in as many landings as you can during the day—that makes all the difference in your images and your ability to really experience the wildlife and spectacular landscapes.

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Great close-up photos are possible when a ship's Captain can safely navigate through pack ice.

5. The ship is an ice-rated ship, the Captain has ice experience and the ship company allows the ship to be taken into the pack ice. There is nothing worse than encountering a great shooting situation where a polar bear and its cubs are reachable in loose pack ice, but the ship will not/cannot enter the ice because the ship’s hull is not ice-strengthened, the Captain has limited or no ice experience, or the ship company does not want to get the paint scratched! On a recent Spitsbergen trip we saw upwards of 60 polar bears. And our 50-passenger Russian ship went right into the pack ice—where we had phenomenal experiences photographing mothers and cubs, bears on seal kills, and a variety of other behaviors. By contrast we watched another ship, one touting a photo leader on a general interest voyage, that barely entered the pack ice. Their photographers never got the great photo opportunities that we did. Yes, that ship was more luxurious than ours. But, comparatively, we still had good food and lots to photograph and we were rarely in our cabins except to sleep and download photos to our computers. So it’s a tradeoff—sailing on a shiny “thoroughbred” ship with teak and brass railings while viewing bears from a distance, or a plain, but comfortable, “workhorse” ship that gets you into the photo action. Some 10–15 passenger boats may be ice-strengthened but do not have the power to get deep into thicker ice, and their bridge is often too low to scan for wildlife at a long distance—and therefore you may miss it!

6. The ship has one continuous deck around the entire ship to allow movement from one end to the other, or side to side, quickly. If you are going to be photographing from the ship, the ability to move around quickly is important for mobile wildlife like whales, seals and bears, as well as for scenery on both sides of the ship. We always select ships with a “promenade deck” that allows photographers to walk around the entire ship, on the outside and on one level. Many ships require going up and down several deck levels, both in and out of the ship, to accomplish the same goal. We like to have that deck as close to water level as possible to be closer to eye level with wildlife. We also like to have wide outside decks and ample space on the bow for tripods whenever possible.

For me, the selection of the right ship to accomplish our photographic goals, as well as for the comfort and safety of the passengers, is a similar process to the one clients use when selecting the right cruise itinerary, ship and tour company to accomplish their photographic goals. –Joe Van Os