The End of the Earth
Antarctica is not an easy place to get to. Nonetheless the effort is more than worth it. If you want to see pristine wilderness and an untouched natural environment there are few places that compare to the last continent to be discovered by man. Permanently covered in snow and in darkness for nearly half the year Antarctica is a place of extremes.
Wildlife viewing in Antarctica is extreme. Nowhere might be able to compare to the Amazon basin or East African plains for diversity of animals but the polar regions make up for them in numbers. Chinstrap penguins breed in colonies so massive that the largest has two million. Adélie penguins gather in colonies of up to half a million.
The waters of the Southern Ocean are among the richest on earth. The cold currents are home to tons of phytoplankton that slowly passes its way up the food chain to bring you a diverse water based eco system. Some animals live on land and some live on ice but since nothing grows in the frigid land all return to sea to eat.
Once you get to Antarctica though
Being isolated from everything you know is not an easy experience to forget.
p-p-p-pick up a penguin. No need for your teeth to chatter. Wear layers when viewing the impeccably dressed bird. They don’t stand on ceremony even if they wear tuxedos to the ends of the world.
Staying Warm in the Antarctic
Of course travelling to the Antarctic is an experience in itself. Never mind the wildlife just being on the last continent to be settled (not that it really is) by humans is amazing. For most people it won’t be too cold. It certainly isn’t a warm weather destination but during the summer months temperatures are reasonable.
By reasonable I mean what you would expect in most of Europe or North America in the winter. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula where most expedition crusises go are above freezing by day and below at night during the summer. Night time is relative though. Given that you are on the other side of the Antarctic Circle there are places with the midnight sun. When it is low in the sky though the temperature tends to drop.
The simple way to stay warm in cold climates is of course to layer your cloths. The Antarctic is no different. A base layer of wool 0r synthetics is best followed by a light sweater or two and an outer layer of fleece or down. A wind proof cover is necessary most of the time as well as there is no point in insulating layers to trap the air if you let the wind into it.
Do the same for your legs. They are equally important when it comes to keeping warm but people tend to focus on keeping the core warm a bit too much. A simple outer windproof shell is great for keeping your legs warm. Also it is good if it is waterproof as then you can sit in the snow to take photos of the penguins. A lower angle is always better when it comes to wildlife photography.
Standing around in snow can get you very cold feet as well. Good shoes are a must but on most antarctic cruises rubber boots are a must to stay dry on landings. Make sure that inside you have enough layering of woollen socks to keep your feet toasty. One word of warning though. Too much protection from the cold however and your feet will sweat. Once they do the dampness and moisture in your socks will remain slowly chilling your feet and then the rest of you. It takes time to learn and everybody is different but being mindful on your first landing will pay dividends for the rest of your time on the snow and ice.
Photography on the snow and ice tends to pose particular difficulties. They are not insurmountable though. A bit of forethought and preparation will keep you from the conditions causing problems.
Exposure is difficult to figure out in the snow. If the masses of white reflected light tends to confuse our eyes then what does it do the the less clever camera sensor. If you are shooting in automatic select a beach or snow setting to compensate. However for people who like a bit more control they need to underexpose the shot to get the snow looking white and everything else looking reasonable.
It is hard to get things right and the small LCD on your camera probably won’t do the image justice. Experience is what you really need so practice in the winter snow before you leave home. An important technique in modern digital photography says to expose to the right/light. Quite simply this means to make sure your exposure is correct for the white bits of the image, the brightest parts and then you can fix the image when you process it afterwards. If the white bits (snow and ice) become too white then you will have no detail in them and the image will be ruined.
To get the exposure right it is best to use matrix metering on your camera and over expose by one stop AND TEST. All cameras are different and this is a good place to start. When you look at your image on your camera screen (I will assume we all use digital now) you should have something decent. If not figure out how you need to adjust the exposure compensation before you go after wildlife. That way you will have less to concern yourself with when trying to get the penguins to stand in a nice formation for a photo.
Most LCD screens don’t give a great replica of what details you have taken in your photo. There is a lot more there than the camera screen can display. One way to get past this is to use your histogram. This setting tells you the strength of the light recorded at each brightness level. Generally the whites/lights are on the right and the blacks/darks on the left but check your model. Too much in either direction means you won’t have detail in that portion of the image.
This is especially important when taking pictures of snow as exposing for a, lets say penguin again, will often ‘blow out’ the light parts of the image. Making sure that the lights parts are not too far right means that you have detail in them. You can then fix them in Lightroom or whatever software you use. You will also be able to bring up the shadows if your subject is a bit dark. However if you over expose you will always have super white snow that ruins your images.
Another concern of cold weather photography is your battery life. Batteries work less in the cold. Bringing a spare and keeping it in an inside pocket is a good idea to make sure you have enough juice for the day. Using long wildlife lenses tends to use up a bit more power as well as the heavier focussing mechanism puts more strain on the motor.
One last thing of note for photographers working in the cold is that on returning to a warm environment can damage your equipment. When you bring cold cameras in to the warmth moisture in the air can get inside the lens and condense. This means you will forever have a lesser quality lens.
However it isn’t all doom and gloom. Most new lenses from Canon and Nikon are dust and weather sealed which also means this is much less of a risk. Also just making sure the lens warms up in a dry environment works well as does allowing it to warm up slowly. You are unlikely to have a problem but just don’t go making one by returning to your ship and turning on the shower full in your cabin with your camera lying out.
Other Antarctic Species
Of course there is more to Antarctica than just Penguins. Despite the cold and winter darkness there are plenty of species living in the seas and on the ice shelves of the Southern Continent.
There are six species living in the Antarctic ranging from the 150 kg Fur Seal to the four ton Elephant Seal. These two are actually found north of the Antarctic zone as well.
The other four, Weddell, Ross, Leopard and Crabeater Seals are all ice specialists and breed on the ice in spring. Ross Seals and Leopard Seals tend to be solitary while the others live in colonies.
Nobody really likes the cold and seals are no exception, they have a thick layer of blubber to protect them. However this isn’t always enough so they spend a lot of their time in the warm water. The waters are always just above freezing even when there is a layer of ice on the surface. This relative warmth is a respite from the extreme temperatures above during the water.
As well as swimming for warmth seals do so to hunt and live. If you watch them on land you might think they are like ‘a fish out of water’. They are though a mammal out of water and are much more at home swimming and diving. As mammals they do need to breathe fresh air. However they don’t need to stay above the water except for breeding. As well as breeding you might catch them resting on an ice floe basking in the sun.
The best time to see Seals is therefore the breeding season which starts in the Antarctic spring, around November. However Weddell Seals often breed a bit earlier.
As the main method of access to Antarctic is by boat it is quite likely that you will have the opportunity to spot whales along the way.
There are many species in the Southern Ocean and during the early 20th Century was a favourite hunting ground. It was during this period that Norway (yes way up north) acquired Penguins in its territory, when they took charge of Jan Bouvet Island.
The most famous of the Antarctic Whales is probably the Southern Right Whale. It was named this because it was the right one to hunt. They were slow moving, shallow diving and provided a lot more oil than other species.
The Southern Right Whale was almost hunted to extinction, with up to 40,000 being taken in the South Atlantic alone before a ban in 1937. Since then the population has recovered to about 10,000 worldwide.
There are also Minke, Humpback, Blue and Fin whales in Antarctic waters.
Often sighted from cruises is the Orca. As they hunt seals any trip into an area for seals is into their favourite hunting grounds. Watching Ocras hunt in packs is an amazing sight though not always easy to follow as often only their dorsal fins are showing.
How to Visit the Antarctic
The easiest way to get to the Antarctic is by cruise. While one can fly from Southern Chile it is a long flight and extremely expensive.
Cruises aren’t a lot cheaper but they do offer a bit more. Most ships heading south do so from Ushuaia at the tip of South America. There are also departures from New Zealand but the distance travelled is significantly more.
From Ushuaia there are many small expedition ships leaving during the summer from the end of October to March. Some go via the Falklands and South Georgia adding a few days and some amazing birding opportunities. There are many breeding colonies of Penguins and Albatrosses on these islands.
Companies like Quark Expeditions, Oceanwide and Silversea all have specialist ships and specialist crews to deal the the conditions. What they call an expedition ship is quite a lot smaller than your regular cruise.
This makes it much more intimate and gives everybody the opportunity to land on the ice-bound continent. Expedition ships carry better excursion-leaders, often with doctorate degrees in biology. Also they have Ribs to allow you to explore and land where larger ships cannot.