Antarctica 2010 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jan 05, 2011

Snow dusted the Andes of Tierra del Fuego and the prominent mountains rising above the city of Ushuaia—Mount Olivia and the Five Brothers—were markedly photogenic on the early December day of our departure for Antarctica.

More than half of our group spent the morning and early afternoon in Tierra del Fuego National Park, photographing its forested mountains, lagoons, birdlife and bucolic landscapes.  By the time they returned to town, our luggage had been transported to the ship and the ship had been made ready for our late afternoon departure.

Now, on board ship, we cruised down the famous Beagle Channel—passing under those same snowy mountains—while 80 enthusiastic passengers lined the decks photographing gulls, forested mountainscapes and the “world’s southernmost city” of Ushuaia as it disappeared into the distance.

By midnight we arrived at the open ocean—and our crossing of the infamous Drake Passage had begun.  By daybreak we were out of sight of land and the ship was being escorted by a squadron of Southern Ocean seabirds, including albatrosses, petrels, gulls and the occasional skua.

By Drake Passage standards we had a reasonably easy crossing to Antarctica over the next two days.  For those prone to seasickness, however, their impression of the crossing was probably not “reasonable.”  Along the way we had excellent photography and natural history lectures presented by leaders Wayne Lynch, Art Wolfe, Jim Martin, Darrell Gulin and John Shaw.

The first iceberg specters loomed on the horizon!  In short order we were within sight of the South Shetlands and soon we were offshore of our first landing beach on Half Moon Island.  The weather couldn’t have been better for our initial landing—a jet blue sky, crisp white mountains, and, later in the day, a sky show of graphic cirrus clouds peeking over the serrate mountains.  Continuous columns of chinstrap penguins waddled from the beach to nest sites.  Antarctic skuas and kelp gulls coursed the sky keeping tabs on the penguins—hoping for careless first-time breeders to lose their newly-laid eggs.  The setting couldn’t have been a better first introduction to Antarctica and its wildlife!

The Adélie penguin colony at Brown Bluff was our next stop and our first landing on continental Antarctica.  The bluff is a “tuya”—a flat-topped formation created by a sub-glacial volcanic eruption as far back as a million years ago.  The weather had taken a turn overnight and we landed with a strengthening wind, snow and colder temperatures.  It seemed much more like “Antarctica” than the balmy afternoon we had at Half Moon Island!  Undaunted, our fellow photographers blasted through countless gigabytes of penguin, Cape petrel and landscape pixels until it was time to cross Antarctic Sound for a Paulet Island landing.

The wind was up and a huge swell was crashing on Paulet Island’s steep beach when the leaders went ashore just prior to the passenger landing.  Normally, when there is a big swell we try to spin the Zodiacs to land “stern to the beach.”  But the swell was very strong, so once we were ashore we walked the beach looking for a more sheltered landing site while our Zodiac circled beyond the breakers.  We also sent a second Zodiac up and down the beach to find a more sheltered location.  None was obvious.  The staff then attempted to depart the beach, but not before a wave swamped the Zodiac—which would have been devastating for inadequately-protected camera gear.  It’s times like this we really appreciate dry bags and the “self-bailing” feature our Zodiacs possess!

Fortunately, I remembered a spectacular iceberg that I had noticed far in the distance on our path into Paulet.  So we backtracked to this iceberg (which contained four amazing arches) and circumnavigated it several times, shooting it repeatedly from all angles.  It was quite an artistic piece of ice!

During our travels across scenic straits and channels we encountered several groups of humpback whales and a large pod of orcas at close range.

Our next landing was Cuverville Island.  Cuverville is wonderfully surrounded by snowcapped mountains jutting straight up from the sea.  It is also home to a picturesque gentoo penguin colony—and that combination allows for great shots of the birds within a graphic landscape.  The clear, shallow water along the beach provided excellent opportunities to watch the gentoos swimming and foraging underwater.  Later in the day we cruised the spectacular and scenic Errera Channel.

The famous Lemaire Channel—a deep but very narrow channel between Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula—provided many maritime mountain landscapes with icebergs as creative punctuation.  The sky was gray and brooding which produced interesting monochromatic images—ready-made black and whites with no need of tweaking in Photoshop!  We approached the southernmost extent of our voyage at Petermann Island, where we went ashore to “shoot” penguins, plus Antarctic shags (cormorants), and indulge in more landscape photography.

The afternoon was consumed by amazing Zodiac cruising among the electric-blue sculpted icebergs trapped in Pleneau Bay.  The Pleneau cruise was one of two incredible ice cruises we did during this voyage.  Many of the participants told me the photography done in these iceberg lagoons was the highlight of their trip and fulfilled all their expectations for iceberg/landscape shooting in Antarctica!

The next morning we cruised into Paradise Harbor on a fantastic, calm, clear day.
Paradise Harbor, along with the Lemaire Channel, is widely regarded as “the most beautiful place in Antarctica.”  And we were there on a morning when that opinion indeed seemed to be true!  Once again, out in the Zodiacs, we cruised through a landscape of ineffable beauty where sculpted icebergs, towering tidewater glaciers and snow-covered peaks were juxtaposed against a cobalt sky.  The conditions for this Zodiac cruise could not have been better.  In all of my visits to Paradise Harbor, I can’t remember a day as wondrous as this one!  An afternoon visit to the British museum at Port Lockroy allowed time to shoot the local gentoo colony, landscapes and historic artifacts or to shop in the museum gift shop.  Personally, I normally prefer to photograph and I avoid the gift shop, but it was obvious that many participants had extensive, Antarctic-themed holiday shopping in mind as we went ashore!  Later that evening, we celebrated the day with a lively party in the lounge as snow started to fly.

We were now officially heading north with our final landings reserved back in the South Shetlands.  Wind speed had risen to 60 knots as we squeezed through “Neptune’s Bellows” (a navigable breach in the caldera wall) and entered the famous caldera that forms Deception Island.  Angry whitecaps crowned the swells while sand, ice pellets and snow blasted the beach.  Even if it had been safe to land, the beach conditions would have wreaked havoc with camera equipment—and we might have ended the trip with so many pieces of damaged gear.

We waited offshore for hours, adding lectures and constantly monitoring the wind conditions for a break.  None came.

Then we received weather alerts and satellite imagery of an immense storm forming in the Southern Ocean.  It was time for us to leave and to beat this storm before we entered the infamous Drake!  Surprisingly, our Drake Passage crossing was virtually uneventful!   But by the time we were back in the Beagle Channel, the storm was raging full force in the Drake—and the wind was blowing 50 knots at the dock in Ushuaia!  When we arrived, the town dock was closed!  We waited within a mile of the dock hoping to get tied up and unloaded before our plane left for Buenos Aires without us.  Several hours passed—the local Port Authority refused our docking as their regulations forbid docking in winds above 30 knots!  But, then, our captain radioed the Tierra del Fuego Coast Guard commandant and said he would take full responsibility for docking if the commandant would override the local regulation (what a great captain!!!).  Finally, amazingly, permission was granted and we glided into dock, tied up, disembarked and made our flight in time.  The rest is history!

Note:  Our blog slideshow contains images from all of the photo leaders on our trip, including Darrell Gulin, Wayne Lynch, Jim Martin, John Shaw, Joe Van Os and Art Wolfe.