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Antarctica, the Last Frontier

by Shun Cheung, 1998

Penguins, Seals, and Icebergs

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 folks.

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 shore.

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 chartered by Quark Expeditions. 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 cases.

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.

Camera Equipment

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 cold climates.

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 perspective. 


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.

Other Accessories

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 Zodiacs.

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 fit. 

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 shots.

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 hikes.

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.

Health Concerns

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 supply. 

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 Antarctica are Quark Expeditions and 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 time.

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 strenuous schedule.

Further Readings

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 towns.
  • Sara Wheeler's Antarctica, the Falklands & South Georgia (ISBN 1-86011-047-9) is also well written and has information especially useful to British readers.

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 exploration.
  • 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 Expeditions.
  • 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 0-393-04605-2).
  • 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 1-55209-180-5).

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 Argentinas.


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.

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Article and Photographs © Copyright 1998 Shun Cheung

You can contact the author via e-mail at shun@worldnet.att.net

Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Helen Clement , September 10, 2008; 10:28 P.M.

Hello Shun, I really enjoyed this article. I am going to the Antarctica with the Cheesemans on December 27th (this year). This trip also includes the Falklands, South Georgia & Orkneys. You have given me some great tips, thanks. I have also been to the Galapagos and to Lake Nakuru, fantastic places to visit. Cheers. Helen.

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