2017 Antarctica Photography Safari: Trip Report

Kate Waite

12 Dec 2017

a day-by-day account of our expert-led Antarctica photography safari

Earlier this month, Will and Kate from NWS joined 86 clients and a trio of expert artistic guides – Andy Rouse, Andrew James and Richard Symonds – on an exclusive Antarctica safari, on the hunt for stunning landscapes and unique wildlife. Kate updated us via satellite link from their expedition ship every step of the way, and you can now read her trip report in full, complete with incredible images and footage shot in one of the world's wildest environments.

Day 1: Ushuaia

After over 24 hours of travelling, we woke today to clear blue sky and dramatic views. Ushuaia is bounded by snow-capped mountains to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south, and as the southernmost city in the world it serves as a gateway to Antarctica.

Waking early and knowing that we’ll be spending the next two days at sea I decide to set off for a run, intending to make the most of the snow-capped mountain views and enjoy the fresh Argentinian air. Unfortunately after a few miles the weather suddenly changed, the mountains vanished behind a blanket of thick cloud and I got completely soaked by a downpour of freezing rain; a lesson in how quickly the weather conditions can change this far south.

Ushuaia is wonderfully picturesque with its colourful buildings and surrounding mountainous backdrop, and following a good breakfast most of us headed into the city centre to pick up last-minute supplies for the journey ahead. During the few hours we were out we we had sunshine and blue sky, swirling snow showers and heavy rain from thick dark clouds.

Finally it was time to board the Akademik Ioffe, our home for the next two weeks. Tonight we’ll be setting sail down the Beagle Channel and then on into the open ocean, with two days of travel ahead of us before we catch sight of land again. Our adventure is only just beginning – Antarctica awaits!

day 2: the drake passage

Last night as we slept we entered the Drake Passage, with a 1,000-kilometre journey lying between us and Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. This infamous stretch of water is known for being rough – the roughest crossing in the world, in fact - and the weather had been the topic of much discussion between the ship’s passengers.

Despite our hopes for a smooth crossing, the weather was not on our side. Sailing into a Force 9 gale, even the stabilisation system on the Ioffe couldn’t stop the ship rocking as we navigated through a series of high swells. Outside the temperature had dropped to just a few degrees centigrade, and with the spray cascading over the bow of the ship our access to the deck was limited to the stern.

We weren’t alone on these rough seas, however; birds often accompany ships through the passage and we’d been joined by some hardy albatross who were also braving the harsh winds. Our enthusiastic naturalist Dick spotted five different species, including the royal albatross, one of the largest flying birds in the world. It was good to get out in the open air and attempt to photograph these magnificent birds in flight, with Andy calling out advice as we braced ourselves on the rolling deck.

The strong winds and high waves may have slowed our progress, but in their own way they also enhanced the experience, especially when standing on deck seeing the ship rise and fall against the power of the ocean, with the occasional wave reaching up and crashing onto the deck. After the initial bad weather the forecast fortunately turned promising, and we have begun to make up the lost time as we continue south.

Safe indoors, the crew have been taking us through mandatory briefings which outline what we can expect once we're onshore and when we're riding in zodiacs, the inflatable boats which we’ll be using to navigate Antarctica’s coastal waters. We were also taught about the compulsory regulations implemented by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) which have been put in place to ensure Antarctica remains a pristine wilderness. Andy and AJ have also started their photographic lecture series with some invaluable advice to remember once we get to shore.

As the sun dipped low behind a bank of dramatic grey clouds, a luminous sunset lit up the cresting white horses on the waves around us, creating a beautiful backdrop for the seabirds following in the wake of the ship. The further on we get into our journey, the more it feels like we’re entering into another world. Sailing across the open ocean without another ship or speck of land in sight, one can really get a sense of the awesome power of the elements here. Despite the rough seas encountered during the first part of our crossing, we’re all incredibly grateful to be here at the bottom of the globe in search of the true meaning of wild.

day 3: big swells and soaring albatross

We woke today to big swells but a better forecast, enabling us to pick up speed as we continued sailing south. At around 11:30am we passed the 60th parallel south, a delineating circle of latitude 60 degrees below the equator. Although it will be some time before we catch a glimpse of any land or ice, this means we are now officially in Antarctica!

Although the closest part of the Antarctic Peninsula is still some way away, there is still plenty to observe, sitting in the warmth of the bridge or braving the temperatures up on deck in order to watch the birds and waves of the Drake Passage. Just after lunch, around 20 grey-mantled albatrosses surrounded the ship, soaring high above and giving us quite a show. Multiple whale blows were spotted ahead as the day went on, and we also managed to catch our first sighting of an iceberg.

Several talks and lectures designed to prepare us for the next few days have heightened the anticipation of what's to come, especially the discussion about our intended landing sites; we are set for a great itinerary. Andy has also taken us through his Penguin 101, a really helpful lecture full of photographic and fieldcraft advice that will come in very handy once we make landfall.

Dinner was disturbed by people leaping up to look at passing icebergs, a sure sign that we’re approaching the outskirts of Antarctica. By sunrise South America will feel like a distant memory, and after two days at sea we’ll have our first sight of land: the Great White Continent.

Day 4: Welcome to Antarctica

“Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairytale. Pinnacle after pinnacle, peak after peak, crevassed, wild as any land on our globe, it lies, unseen and untrodden” wrote Roald Amundsen. From the first glimpse Antarctica casts a spell of awe and wonder on the privileged few who get to visit this remotest wilderness, and this morning it was our turn.

“Welcome to Antarctica” was the announcement from Danny our Canadian Expedition Leader, at 0700 this morning, although for many we’d already been up for hours soaking in the scenery outside as we caught the first glimpse of snow-capped mountains lit orange by the sunrise.

Our first excursion to shore was to Mikkelsen Harbour on the south side of Trinity Island. Rocky shoals led the way to the landing site with glaciers forming the perfect Antarctic backdrop. The main residents of the still snow-covered island were gentoo penguins, busy building nests and mating in their colonies. On the beach Weddell seals slumbered in the surprisingly warm sun while a pair of comical Adélie penguins came over to check us out.

Our second excursion was a zodiac cruise around Penguin Island, home to Chinstrap penguins. We continued to explore Cierva Cove in our zodiacs, encountering gentoo penguins leaping into the sea, cruising around beautiful blue ice formations and alongside the heavily crevassed face of a glacier. As we headed back to the boat a humpback whale startled us, rising right alongside our zodiac, diving down and resurfacing the other side.

As the dropping sun turned the sky a beautiful rose colour, casting a pink and orange glow over the snow-capped mountains of the Gerlache Strait, the distinctive bushy blow of humpback whales were spotted at the bow of the ship. A number of whales, their flukes rising high above the surface of the ocean, adding to the breathtaking magic of such a remarkable sunset.

Day 5: The 7th Continent

Antarctica is a destination that has been the source of much fascination to me for over two decades; I've a whole library of books covering every aspect of this beguiling land. It was with some emotion that I stepped off the zodiac and onto the actual continent itself today.

Our first peninsula landing was at Almirante Brown, one of the most stunning places I've visited in my travels, which as of today includes stepping foot onto all seven continents.

A steep hill offered the perfect viewpoint over the curved bay below, dotted with ice and backed by snow-covered peaks. At the top I joined the group doing some sketching under the watchful eye of wildlife artist Richard Symonds, and while I'm lacking in any ability in that department myself, it was nice to sit in the sun taking in the view and moment.

Later, we headed out to Danco Island, home to nesting gentoo penguins. Another steep hill climb revealed another perfect Antarctic view encompassing penguins and otherworldly ice formations sculpted by the sea. It was a good afternoon sat in the snow watching penguins passing by from one group to the other with plenty of good photographic opportunities.

Night 6: Sleeping on Ice

Hardy or foolish? I'm not sure which better describes the group of passengers who decided to camp out on the snow overnight. Le's go with adventurous.

Around 8:30pm we headed out, bundled up in all the clothes we own. I hadn't appreciated how immobile it makes you wearing so much clothing. Snow started to fall as we arrived on shore, and the atmosphere was dark and moody. We scraped out a dip to sleep in, each of us cocooned in a sleeping bag and sheltered by a bivvy bag . I wasn't cold or uncomfortable; with so many layers on I was actually quite warm and cosy, although sleep eluded me as I listened to the sound of ice crashing from nearby glaciers and the gentle plink of snowfall on my bivvy bag. The sound of snoring from nearby human nests indicated that sleep wasn't elusive for all, however. We returned to the ship just after 5.30am to be greeted with coffee and freshly made cookies. With the first landing due at 9:30am there is just enough time for a nap before we head back out.

Day 6: A Mesmerising Frozen World

Despite feeling tired, once again I pulled on multiple layers, hauled on my waterproof clothing, packed up my camera equipment and headed out in a zodiac to Georges Point.

The skies had cleared leaving a blue sky dotted with white clouds. Perfect white snow shone brightly in the sunlight while gentoo and chinstrap penguins ignored our human intrusion into their world and carried on with their everyday lives. Walking up over a hill and seeing the ice-strewn bay below I was again blown away by the remote beauty of Antarctica; this was my favourite place within this incredible continent to date.

It wasn’t going to hold the number one position for long. Later in the afternoon we repositioned in Wilhelmina Bay. A known gathering spot for whales, this was a place of epic 360-degree landscapes. Our seasoned zodiac driver said he had never seen it so millpond calm or with such a perfectly blue sky. Snow-capped mountains meeting perfectly formed fluffy clouds, flawlessly white fast ice dotted with sunbathing penguins, crevice-faced glaciers crashing down into the sea and ice sculptures of extraordinary blue.

A zodiac was repurposed as a floating bar and sped over to supply hot chocolate laced with Baileys as we attempted to photograph the incredible scene all around us. The perfect day in Antarctica.

Day 7: Swirling Snowstorms

The bright sunny weather had left us this morning, leaving behind nothing but white. With very limited visibility Antarctica had disappeared behind a veil of swirling snow. Combined with the wind and wave conditions it wasn’t safe to head to shore so instead we took a much-needed break to back up images and recharge batteries; both the cameras and our own. Falcon Scott, grandson of renowned explorer Scott of the Antarctic, talked about polar history.

By early afternoon conditions were still harsh, but we had repositioned the ship in the slightly more sheltered Yankee Harbour for a landing.

Heading out on the zodiacs we kept our heads down as were buffeted by the wind and soaked by the spray of the waves. Upon landing we were greeted by snow squalls, bracing against the strong wind. This was real Antarctica. Harsh, cold, beautiful and raw.

Conditions were challenging for photography; within seconds lenses were being filled with snow and the weatherproofing of our cameras was being put to the test. Penguins vanished from sight through swirling snowstorms as we lay on the ground battered by the elements. An elephant seal hauled herself out and passed through alongside us. I loved it. Our expedition naturalist said it was one of the most memorable landings he’d had in 28 years of polar travel. This is the Antarctica we’d envisioned.

Day 8: Adélies on Ice

Overnight the snow squalls of yesterday had given way to clear blue skies once again. I woke early for sunrise; while it never actually gets dark, the sun does dip just below the horizon for around four hours, with rose-coloured skies punctuating twilight hours. We were passing through Antarctic Sound, sailing past huge tabular icebergs the size of skyscrapers and ice floes dotted with Adélie penguins.

“I had never seen anything as magnificent as this stupendous work of nature. The most important and beautiful monuments built by mankind never inspired me with the sensation that I experienced when I saw my first Antarctic iceberg," wrote Herbert Ponting, the photographer on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. It’s hard to describe these extraordinary tabular icebergs but for me Ponting’s words ring true.

Due to the volume of ice blocking any potential landing sights, we spent the day on the water, cruising for over six hours in our zodiacs in search of wildlife. Adélie penguins swam alongside us, at times groups of up to fifty of them porpoising through the water and then leaping at huge speed onto the ice around us. Weddell and crabeater seals hauled out onto the ice and watched us pass while numerous species of bird were spotted swooping low over the water or observing from frozen perches; Antarctica may be remote and inhospitable to us, but it’s teeming with wildlife.

The highlight had to be the Adélie penguins, for me the most striking species with its all-black head and bold white eye-ring. We passed a nesting colony, ice reaching over the sea offering the perfect diving platform as they huddled in groups at the edge daring each other as to who should leap first. Antarctic wildlife at its best.

Day 9: Acrobatic Adélies

The changing Antarctic weather keeps us guessing; today we were back to snow. As soon as we stepped outside our clothing was flecked with white.

The morning landing was to Brown Bluff where the eastern edge of the Tabarin Peninsula drops almost sheer to the water from an ice-capped summit. The slopes are home to tens of thousands of nesting Adélie penguins who were sitting on their eggs.

This afternoon was my favourite time spent in zodiacs of the trip as we explored Hope Bay, a notch in the top of the Antarctic Peninsula. Covered in falling snow we hugged close to the ice edge at eye level with hundreds of Adélie penguins. They gave us their best displays, leaping in and out of the water, preening and skating over the ice.

Day 10: The Polar Plunge

Our final day in Antarctica. I felt a twinge of sadness as we landed at Half Moon Bay and its high-key landscape of white snow against black rock dotted with black-and-white penguins.

A few people decided to do the polar plunge, diving under the zero-degree water. I didn’t intend to join them; after all, it was only five months ago I did one in the Arctic. One passenger said the only reason she was doing it was to say she had swum in all the oceans of the world. As she listed them I realised that there was only one missing from my own list of oceans I’d swum in: Antarctica. Despite not having my swimsuit I stripped down to my thermals and ran in. It was a considerably better experience than my Arctic dip.

As we start the long journey back to South America through the Drake Passage I lie in my cabin, and the rise and fall of the ship with the waves is quite therapeutic.

I feel privileged to have travelled to such an incredible place in such good company. I’ve laughed until my face ached and blinked back tears of emotion at the wonder of being here. I’ve seen first-hand sights such as great tabular icebergs that dwarf our ship, rose-coloured sunsets with whale blows punctuating the horizon and hundreds of the most likeable of birds: penguins.

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