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Before my wife and I signed up for our cruise to Antarctica, we spoke with
some people who had been there a couple of years earlier. They told us that at
the end of their trip, a few passengers were quite disappointed because all they
saw during their trip were a lot of penguins, seals, and icebergs. My wife
thought those passengers must be kidding because it should be really exciting to
see so much wildlife and beautiful scenery, well, different strokes for different
Cruises to Antarctica
The typical way to visit Antarctica and the surrounding islands is by cruise
ship. There are trips that begin from New Zealand, Australia or South Africa, but
most cruises start from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina or the Falkland
Islands and visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which extends well to the north
outside of the Antarctic Circle. When the ship arrives at a landing site,
Zodiacs, a French made rubber landing craft, will take the passengers to the
The most popular cruise is a ten-day trip from Ushuaia that sails directly
south across the Drake Passage, which takes two days each way through supposedly
the roughest sea in the world, and spends six days visiting the Antarctic
Peninsula and the surrounding islands. Another is an 18-day cruise that visits
the Falklands for two days, 3-4 days at South Georgia and finally 3-4 days at the
Peninsula. Keep in mind that cruising by ship is still a fairly slow way to
travel; it takes about two and half days to sail from the Falklands to South
Georgia and then another 2-3 days from South Georgia to the Peninsula area.
Therefore, in an 18-day trip, 7-8 days are "wasted" at sea. In additional to
that, usually, a storm goes through the sub-Antarctica region every several days
when the weather could become too poor to visit any landing site. So be prepared
to lose another day or two of landing time because of bad weather.
South Georgia, Truly an Antarctic Oasis
In their book on South Georgia Island, Tim and Pauline Carr call it an
"Antarctic Oasis," full of wildlife in the cold sub-Antarctic region. South
Georgia is a large island about 1300 Km (800 miles) south east of the Falklands.
The shape of the island is long and slightly curves from the northwest to the
southeast. Since the strong sub-Antarctic wind blows from the west to the east,
the bays on the west coast of South Georgia are very windy and the sea is rough.
Hence most of the visitor sites are on the north and east coast where the bays
are a lot calmer. Many of the whaling stations from the early 20th century were
built on that side as well. Grytviken in Cumberland Bay was the first whaling
station built and the last to close; a lot of crumbling factory buildings are
still there. A small number of British troops are stationed at a garrison near
by, and most cruise ships clear customs with them first. There is a small whaling
museum with a gift shop and a post office. Those visitors interested in buying
souvenir and mailing postcards should bring some cash and their address book with
them to the landing.
For those who are interested in wildlife photography, South Georgia is a great
island to visit. It is within the Antarctic Convergence where the ocean provides
a very rich food source for sea birds and seals while not cold enough to be
frozen in the winter. Several King Penguin colonies there have thousands and
thousands of birds making a lot of noise. Hungry chicks would chase their parents
begging for food. While the flamingos at Lake Nakuru in Kenya is considered to be
one of the greatest wonders in the world of birds, in my opinion the King Penguin
rookeries in South Georgia are a lot more amazing.
Our Trip to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica
Our cruise to Antarctica was organized by
Voyagers International as a photography
trip led by American professional photographer David Middleton. This small
photography group joined a cruise on the Russian ship Akademik Sergey Vavilov
There were more than 70 passengers from 16 countries on board. In reality, there
was no difference between our photography group and other passengers as all
activities were organized and scheduled by the expedition leaders for the entire
ship. The 18-day cruise started from Ushuaia on November 22, 1998 and returned to
Ushuaia in the morning of December 10. During the trip we saw seven species of
penguins (Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo, King, Chinstrap, Macaroni, and Adelie),
several species of albatrosses and petrels as well as a few types of seals,
whales, etc. In addition to all that, the scenery with glaciers and ice-filled
sea is simply breath taking.
This article describes this type of trips from the point of view of a serious
amateur nature photographer. There are other cruises on icebreakers that travel
further south into even colder and very icy regions. Some of the information
concerning clothing and camera equipment in this article may not apply in those
Nature Photography in Antarctica
Exposure and Composition
Photography requires light; there is good news and bad news on this issue.
Since most people visit the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic areas in the austral
summer (November to March), the daylight hours are very long and the quality of
light at high latitude is good. The bad news is that the weather changes quickly
and frequently in this region. It can rain and even snow in the summer. Expect to
have a number of overcast days during a visit to the Antarctic. It doesn't have
to be completely sunny to take great photographs, but when the light gets dull,
so will the images.
People often find it difficult to meter a snow scene. In reality, as long as
you have a spot meter, it shouldn't be too much of a problem. In a sunny day, I
would spot-meter white snow under bright sunlight and expose it 1.5 to 2 stops
above medium, depending on your personal preference, and the exposure for
everything else in the image should fall in place. In other words, the dark areas
should be 1 to 2 stops below medium. In an overcast situation, I would expose
white snow at 1 (or at most 1.5) stop above medium. If the contrast is greater
than that and one need details in the dark area, either a graduated medium
density filter to darken the bright area or, if possible, fill flash to brighten
up the dark area will be necessary. Keep in mind that at 1.5 to 2 stops over
medium, the details in the white snow could be washed out. Some bracketing may
still be necessary, especially in backlit situations, but it shouldn't be that
difficult to get within half a stop. If one wants to bracket, this should be a
good starting point.
It is important to photograph wildlife from their eye level so that the image
represents the animal's world rather than a human's perspective. Since penguins
don't fly, it is important to photograph them from a low angle. However, if it is
a penguin rookery image that covers a larger area that shows their nesting
environment, it is necessary to shoot from a higher angle to include both the
foreground and background. In the penguin book by Wayne Lynch (see the list of
further readings at the end), there are plenty of photographs that demonstrate
how good penguin photography is done.
One problem with photographing at bird colonies is that they are densely
populated. If one wants to take a penguin portrait, there frequently are several
other penguins around, creating an annoying background. One solution is to shoot
near the edges of a colony to eliminate other birds from the background or select
a position where the background is rocks or the ocean. Moreover, penguins are
primarily black and white birds. There is plenty of contrast within one body. If
a penguin occupies a large area in an image, one can always spot-meter the front
and the back. Similar to snow, the white front should be 1 to 1.5 stops above
medium and the dark back should be a stop or two below medium. The head of an
adult King Penguins is extremely dark. Unfortunately, their eyes are also very
dark such that a King Penguin portrait can easily become a large black head with
a colorful beak and neck but absolutely no eye and feather details. Sometimes
that problem is inevitable.
Another issue with photographing penguins is that after they sit on their nest
for a while, their white front feathers tend to get dirty very quickly with guano
and dirt all over. A penguin with a dirty brown and green chest looks ugly.
However, when they feed in the ocean, their feathers get cleaned and their front
becomes snow white again. Therefore, it is better to photograph those "clean"
penguins that have just returned from the ocean.
Photography from Ship
During cruises in the open ocean, a lot of sea birds such as albatrosses and
petrels like to fly alongside the ship. Therefore, those "at sea" days provide
good opportunities to shoot in-flight shots. Unfortunately, even with modern
auto-focus equipment, my success rate for in-flight shots is not that high. One
can really burn a lot of film this way. I personally prefer the angle from a
middle-level deck to shoot these in-flight images.
When a cruise ship sails through ice fields in narrow channels, the landscape
can be extremely beautiful. In that situation, I prefer the angle from the top
deck to show the floating ice in the sea. Occasionally, there are birds or seals
sitting on the floating ice where a lower angle from the bottom deck would be
better. Pay extra attention to keep the horizon level, as it will keep moving
when the ship rocks.
The usual advice for nature photography in remote areas is to bring at least
two compatible (e.g. same lens mount) camera bodies and plenty of film. This may
seem to be obvious, but one participant in our group had exactly one high-end
35mm body and one Hasselblad medium format body with several very expensive
lenses. Unfortunately, the on-off switch on his 35mm body broke in the very first
day of the trip. Needless to say, he got quite worried. Fortunately, the switch
was stuck in the "on" position and the camera was still usable.
Since most travelers visit the sub-Antarctic islands and Antarctica in the
austral summer, the temperature isn't really that cold and most modern electronic
cameras will function properly. It is unnecessary to bring all-mechanical bodies
because of the cold weather. However, do bring extra batteries. Lithium or
rechargeable NiCd batteries tend to work better and last longer than Alkalines in
As in the case of the Galapagos Islands, most of the wildlife in Antarctica
has little fear of humans so that one can approach them. But unlike the
Galapagos, visitors are not restricted to any trails and therefore can get fairly
close to the wildlife. In some cases, young birds and seals are so curious about
human visitors that they would approach us. Therefore, in my opinion, for
wildlife photography in Antarctica, the most useful lens is a 80-200mm (or
70-210) type zoom. A 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconvertor should be sufficient
when one needs additional reach or isolation of a particular animal. It is
unnecessary to bring very long 500/600mm type lenses as they are very heavy and
awkward to carry in and out of Zodiacs while wearing cumbersome clothing. Of
course, some people bring them anyway. If it is possible, I would use telephoto
lenses on a tripod. Some landing sites are very windy, and a tripod can greatly
improve camera stability, even with a short lens. In particular, when there are
multiple animals in an image, one needs to use a small aperture to obtain
sufficient depth of field in order to keep all of them sharp. A tripod provides
the much-needed stability at slower shutter speeds.
One or two wide-angle lenses are useful to photograph the beautiful landscape
in Antarctica. In some trips there are Zodiac cruises where one can photograph
icebergs from sea level. A wide-angle zoom can be very handy in those occasions.
In fact, since one can get really close to some nesting birds, it is even
possible to take bird portraits with a 20mm lens and get an unusual
Film choice is very subjective. During the Antarctic summer there can be close
to 20 hours of daylight, but the weather changes quickly as there are many
overcast days. So one needs to bring a combination of slow and medium-speed film.
During my trip, I brought 70 rolls of ISO 100 slide film with a mixture between
Ektachrome E100S and Fujichrome Sensia. I also had 30 rolls of Velvia for those
occasions when I needed extra-saturated colors and about 10 rolls of Ektachrome
E200 for the extra speed.
Velvia tends to exaggerate colors, especially green. I like to use it for
landscape shots and those wildlife shots that need enhanced colors, such as the
orange patch on King Penguins. Nowadays, the E6 ISO 100 films from Kodak and Fuji
are quite similar. One characteristic of E100S/SW is that shadow areas tend to
turn blue, which may make snow and ice scenes look great. But a penguin with a
bluish chest or a beach with bluish sand really looks strange. My personal
preference is to use Fujichrome Provia or Sensia for wildlife shots since they
produce truer colors. Ektachrome E100S is more suitable for landscape shots as it
renders the blue sky and blue ocean very well.
It is hard to say how much film one needs for these trips. I brought about 110
rolls of slide film for an 18-day cruise and ended up shooting 92 rolls,
including a lot of in-camera dupes. To point out something that should be
obvious, it is important to bring enough film to each landing. It is extremely
frustrating to run out of film standing on an island with plenty of photo
opportunities around you while your film supply is on the cruise ship.
A good photo backpack is the best way to carry camera gear in and out of
Zodiacs. In particular, those that come with a plastic cover such as the Lowepro
AW (All Weather) series are good for preventing salt spray and rain from damaging
the camera bag and equipment. A shower cap or plastic bag can help keep the
camera dry during light rain. Lens cleaning paper and fluid is also useful.
Keep in mind that some Zodiac rides can be very rough especially in poor
weather. Besides the salt spray, all the vibration and occasional crushing motion
near the bow of a Zodiac is very bad for photo equipment. It is important to keep
cameras in bags with good padding and avoid placing camera bags near the front of
As in my trip to Kenya a year earlier, one of my lenses jammed during the
Antarctica trip. Essentially a pin that fits into a notch in a circular plate
which controls the aperture diaphragm slipped underneath the plate, and the
aperture was stuck at its maximum. Fortunately, I had a small Phillips screw
driver with me. A quick disassemble and re-assemble of the rear part of the lens
corrected the problem.
AC Power on Board
Depending on a cruise ship's country of origin, it may provide 110V or 220V AC
outlets in its cabins, and some passengers will need a transformer and/or an
adapter for their applicances. In particular, some Russian ships use a recessed
type 220V sockets with European-style round prongs. The front plate of these
sockets is not flat. Instead, it has a round cavity to fit circular plugs. The
problem is that transformers or converter plugs larger than the cavity will not
fit inside and therefore the prongs may not be able to make contact with the
outlet. For those who travel on European ships, it is important to verify what
type of sockets are available on board and bring small converter plugs that will
Clothing - Keeping Warm and Dry
The summer temperature at the sub-Antarctic islands is around 10°C/50°F. At the Antarctic
Peninsula, it should be around freezing or slightly below freezing. So unless one
is really sensitive to cold weather, it really isn't that cold in the parts of
Antarctica that are usually visited. However, the problem is the wind chill; when
it is windy, one feels a lot colder. Therefore, it is important to wear layers of
clothing that can be added or taken off depending on the changing weather and
have a windbreaker jacket. Either a hood with the jacket and/or a hat is
necessary to keep the head warm.
As I mentioned earlier, the weather in the Antarctic region can change
quickly. Even though it may be sunny at the beginning of a landing, it could
start raining or even snowing in an hour or two. Moreover, there can be some
serious seawater (salt) spray during Zodiac rides. Therefore, the windbreaker
should also be waterproof, and one should wear waterproof rain pants, which are
good for kneeling or sitting on the ground (very dirty) to shoot low-level
Beach landing from a Zodiac usually requires stepping into ice cold seawater
that is several inches deep before walking ashore. Moreover, at some landing
sites there are many small streams that one needs to walk across before reaching
the bird rookeries. Therefore, it is necessary to wear rubber boots that are at
least 30cm (12in) high. The boots should have a strong sole for some moderate
Gloves are necessary to keep the hands warm. Photographers need gloves that
let them operate their cameras. In my trip, some people used very thin silk glove
liners. I used a pair of those and usually add a pair of wool gloves with cut-off
finger tips on top to provide additional protection.
One really should be in good health to travel to remote areas such as
Antarctica, as medical help is limited. Some cruise companies advertise their
trips to be not physically demanding and a lot of the wildlife can be observed
from the cruise ship itself. While that can be the case, to fully explore most
landing sites, one needs to do some moderate hikes over uneven terrain while
wearing cumbersome clothing and carrying camera equipment. Therefore, a tourist
really needs to be reasonably fit to take full advantage of the trip. Otherwise,
one wouldn't get to see nearly as much as the active passengers do; of course,
some people may find that perfectly acceptable.
Most cruise ships have a physician with emergency medicine training and a
small infirmary on board. They can handle injuries such as broken bones, twisted
ankles, etc. (In my trip, the doctor was an emergency-room physician from
Australia. He has extensive experience traveling deep into Antarctica and
high-altitude mountain climbing under extreme cold.) However, the selection and
supply of medication is usually very limited, as it is impossible for a small
ship to bring each type of medication every passenger may possibly need. Those
travelers who might need special medication should bring their own
A cruise to Antarctica involves sailing through some of the roughest oceans in
the world. Whether a particular crossing through the Drake Passage is rough or
not depends on the weather and the type of the ship, and of course everybody's
tolerance is different. My wife and I were in a larger ship and had no problems,
but a number of passengers did get seasick. There are several types of motion
sickness medication available. Unfortunately, most of them have some side effects
such as drowsiness. During my trip, I used Transderm Scop patches (which you put
behind the ear) to prevent motion sickness. Unfortunately, I got drowsy as well
as blurred vision, which are listed to be side effects that happen to less than
1/6 of the users. Soon after I removed the patch, I felt fine again.
Finally, the sun can be very intense in the Antarctic summer, and with the
reflection from snow and ice all around, one can easily get sunburn as in ski
trips. Therefore, it is necessary to bring some suntan lotion also.
When to Visit
The summer tourist season in the Antarctic is quite short, usually from mid
November through mid March. In early December, a lot of the snow and ice around
the Antarctic Peninsula has not melted yet. The snow-covered scenery is
especially beautiful. However, some narrow channels that are well known for their
scenery may still have too much ice for cruise ships to pass through. Moreover,
December is early in the Antarctic breeding cycle for the birds. Most penguins
either have eggs or very small chicks in their nests (except for the King and
Emperor Penguins, which have much longer 14 to 15-month breeding cycles).
By late February and March, the penguin chicks are grown and might have
already gone into the ocean. Meanwhile, the bird rookeries become very dirty
after several months of nesting. Moreover, during the tourist season, the
Antarctic cruise ships literally run non-stop. Typically, a cruise ends in
Ushuaia early in the morning. As soon as the tourists disembark, the crew will
clean up the ship and pick up new supply. A new group of tourist will embark in
the afternoon and the ship will leave Ushuaia again that evening. A cruise ship
can make as many as 9 or 10 trips to Antarctica in one season. Needless to say,
by February and March, the crew is all exhausted. Therefore, I prefer the cruises
that begin in late November, December or at the latest January.
Types of Antarctic Trips and Tour Operators
Cruises to Antarctica
As it was discussed earlier, the usual way to visit Antarctica is by cruise
ships. Since there are no hotels, a cruise ship provides accommodation as well as
transportation. The most popular cruise is a 10-day trip that visits the
Antarctic Peninsula area. Besides that, the 18-day trips that visit the
Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula are also common. In addition to
those, there are cruises on ice-breakers that sail deep into Antarctica to visit
the Emperor Penguins in the Weddell Sea or Ross Sea regions; those cruises last
around four weeks and cost over US$10,000 per person.
Trips to Sub-Antarctic Islands Only
Some trips visit the sub-Antarctic islands but not Antarctica itself. For two
to three weeks, they either visit the Falklands and South Georgia or several
islands that belong to Australia and New Zealand. Since these sub-Antarctic
islands are a bit warmer than Antarctica itself, they tend to have more wildlife.
These trips don't travel as far south as the Antarctic trips and therefore
involve less sailing, hence there is more time for landings and therefore
wildlife viewing and photography.
Several professional photographers lead photo trips to the Falkland Islands.
They stay in local lodges and use small aircrafts to travel among the islands.
The advantage is that there are no "at sea" days and no time restriction on
Zodiac landings, but the accommodation at those lodges tends to be fairly
primitive. And one needs to pack and unpack every couple of days as the group
moves from one island to another.
Voyagers International organizes Falkland
trips led by John and Barbara Gerlach as well as by
Joe and Mary Ann McDonald.
Cruise Ships and Companies
After the break up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, some of their
Arctic and Antarctic research ships lost their research funding and have been
converted into cruise ships. Since the cost to charter these Russian ships is
much lower than that for Western ships, Antarctic cruises, while still very
expensive, have become a little more affordable.
Only about 10,000 tourists visit Antarctica annually. Antarctic cruise trips
can be booked through many different travel agencies, most of which work as a
front-end to other companies. Some of the companies that run cruises to
Zeaghram Expeditions. The
Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris runs a four-week
Falkland, South Georgia, and Antarctica trip roughly once every two years. That
is one week longer than the usual trips and therefore provides a lot more landing
Antarctic cruise ships tend to be small, from 50 to 100 passengers. The
advantage of a very small 50-passenger ship is that they can travel through
narrow channels and Zodiac landings are much quicker. However, they are also less
stable in rough sea. The larger 80-100 passenger ships are more stable but need
to avoid shallow water.
Even with these small ships, because of the high cost, most trips have to be
marketed to as broad a customer base as possible, especially to wealthy retirees
who tend to have the money and time for these trips. It is common that passengers
in a cruise are from many different countries and speak different languages. (In
my trip, about half of the 72 passengers were Swedish and most of them were
serious birders. A total of 16 countries were represented. With a Russian crew
and Austrian chefs, it was like a mini United Nations.) The problem with a
diverse group of travelers is that their objectives are not always compatible.
Serious photographers need a lot of landing time and good light to photograph
wildlife and landscape. However, birders don't necessarily care about light
conditions while some less active passengers demand more comfort and a less
There are only a few travel guides for Antarctica:
One that is widely available in the US is Antarctica, a Lonely Planet
Travel Survival Kit by Jeff Rubin (ISBN 0-86442-415-9). This book provides a
lot of details on Antarctica itself as well as many sub-Antarctic islands and
Sara Wheeler's Antarctica, the Falklands & South Georgia (ISBN
1-86011-047-9) is also well written and has information especially useful to
For those who are interested in coffee-table books, the following five all
have lots of nice photographs:
Mike Lucas' Antarctica (ISBN 0-7892-0257-3) provides an excellent
summary on the natural history of Antarctica as well as the history of Antarctic
Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and Antarctic by Galen
Rowell (Hard Cover: ISBN 0-520-20174-4, Paperback: ISBN 0-520-20902-8) compares
the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic regions. At the end of the book,
Rowell discusses how each photograph in the book was taken: the environment
setting, focal length, aperture, shutter speed, flash, film, filter, etc.
Photographers should find this information useful.
Antarctica, Beyond the Southern Ocean by Colin Monteath (ISBN
0-7641-5040-5) has outstanding photographs on the wildlife, landscape as well as
research stations in Antarctica. Monteath has been an expedition leader for Quark
For information on South Georgia, Tim and Pauline Carr, a couple who lives on
a boat in South Georgia and runs the museum gift shop at Grytviken, have written
Antarctic Oasis, Under the Spell of South Georgia (ISBN
One of the best books on penguins is Penguins of the World by Wayne
Lynch, who was a physician and now a professional nature photographer (ISBN
Bird guidebooks for Antarctica and South America:
For birders, a very good bird guide book for the region is Birds of
Southern South America and Antarctica by Martin R. de la Pena and Maurice
Rumboll (ISBN 0-00-220077-5). It is in the Collins Illustrated Checklist
series and is an English adaptation of the Spanish book Guia de las Aves
I would like to thank Jim Korczak and Kelly Flynn for reviewing a draft of
this article. In particular, Kelly's experience from her trip to Antarctica and
her suggestions to enhance this article are very helpful.