The Nov 5th – Dec 15th Expedition to Antarctica

The Nov 5th - Dec 15th Expedition to Antarctica

By: Keegan Pearson

In the midst of the screaming sixties, far beyond Cape Horn and the tip of South America I found myself sliding aggressively up and down my bed, hitting first my head and then my feet against the wall to the rhythm of the sea as our ship rolls through the Southern Ocean swell. I am contemplating how I managed to unwittingly sign up to cross the Drake Passage not once, but six times in my role as polar guide and photographer with Antarctica 21, the first company in the world to pioneer fly-cruises to Antarctica. I guess the runway must be covered in snow for the first few weeks of the season… so here I am on the ship.

Scale is a difficult thing to describe working in polar regions. The Ocean Nova is 73m long and the little boat is approaching with 11 people onboard. Port Charcot, Antarctica.

The difference between flying to Antarctica and sailing a vessel from South America, two days each way, is that in the latter endeavor one has time to contemplate their life choices. And for those on their way to Antarctica for the first time, time to get excited on the way there and time to reflect on the way back.

To shake off the ambiguity of time and the sleepiness of rolling a ship broadside through westerly swell in one of the world’s roughest oceans, one of the best things to do is go outside. Standing in the cutting wind cooled by the circumpolar current on a rough day will wake even the groggiest person up.

A male and female killer whale head off towards Peterman Island and say goodbye as we head back north through the channel. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

The Drake Passage is a nightmare for those prone to seasickness, but it’s a birders paradise, with much of the birdlife endemic only to this area. From the back deck, you can see sooty albatross — perhaps the sleekest looking bird around, royal albatross — holder of the world’s largest wingspan, averaging 3.4m, cape petrels and giant petrels, black browed albatross — looking like mascaraed divas with their black lined eyes, fulmars, prions, and even the tiny Wilson’s Storm petrel with a relatively small 40 cm wingspan all dance and wheel in the ships wake. They tack on the wind and search the water churned up by the ship’s propellers for a chance snack from the deep.

For me, it’s both a great time to see how long I can stand outside without losing my fingers, and a great moment to practice using Lumix’s autofocus tracking systems — most of which are new to me. I found that with animal mode and tracking mode, I was able to catch birds in flight and track them across a featureless wave scape with a consistency I hadn’t been able to manage before.

A sooty albatross flies close beside the ship. An example of pivoting with the birds as they passed by with the tracking autofocus mode enabled. Drake Passage, Southern Ocean.

Since part of my role onboard is to give photographs to guests, some of whom never emerge from their cabins until the boat ceases to roll, it’s a great way to show them a close up of the specks they may have noticed streaking past their windows.

Upon arriving in Antarctica after the last ship cruise, the operation changes dramatically. Instead of nine days, four of which are down days crossing the Drake Passage, the trips switch to five-day cruises. The difference being the passengers fly in on a four engine BAE turbo prop airplane, land on a Chilean military managed gravel runway straight out of Star Wars on King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands, and are then escorted out to the ship from the beach in inflatable boats. This means the pace picks up dramatically and I transition from a photographer with downtime, to a photographer who’s also driving zodiacs, preparing lectures, and presenting photo slideshows.

One of the DAP airplanes, this one painted as a chinstrap penguin, lands to embark our passengers and disembark 70-new guests as a Chilean Military officer stands by with his well trained Skua. The bird followed him around the station like a puppy. King George Island, Antartica.

My camera now has to survive the abuse of living in a well-padded waterproof bag (that’s sometimes floating) on the floor of the zodiac as I drive guests through the ice pack, the time spent around my neck as I drive the boat and shoot photos one handed simultaneously, and quick transitions onboard the ship as I dump images in between outings.

The robustness of the S1R and the new pro series lenses left no doubt that they were up to the task.

I hope you enjoy a few images from the expedition.

After over 6-years of jokes and hopes, glaciologist and Antarctica 21 long time polar specialist Pablo finally lands on the mountain spine island of Smith Island! The best part, a long running bet was won and Pablo beat long time friend Mariano Curiel (the man who has led the most expeditions to Antarctica in the world and Antarctica 21 Logistics head) to the island. Smith Island, Antarctica.

Gear used:
Lumix S1R x 2
– Lumix f/1.4 50mm
– Lumix f/4 70-20mm
– Lumix f/2.8 24-70mm prototype
– Lumix 2X Teleconverter

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Taken in the Drake Passage, a black brow albatross tacks on the wind and dives down to take another pass behind the ship. This was likely taken in autofocus Animal Mode. Drake Passage, Southern Ocean.

A passenger walks from the lighthouse at Cape Horn out towards the albatross monument at the end of the walkway, appearing to walk in the clouds. Cape Horn, Chile.

A huge benefit of the massive S1R sensor is stitched together panoramas now have more detail than ever before. Download the full res image of this panorama (74 MB) and zoom in to look around. The leftmost object is the albatross monument on Cape Horn. Cape Horn, Chile.

If you look very closely you can see a white ship, about 120m long, in the middle of the rain squall. This is the view from Cape Horn — a place of mystery, misery and hope for sailors since time immemorial. Cape Horn, Chile.

Willy Parra waits in the swell for a boat to come in to land. This is a a common way to get guests ashore — four people wear waders or dry suits and act as “catchers,” helping to spin the boat to land it stern first so that the boat doesn’t get flooded by waves. They then work together to push the boat out to sea so that it can get its engine back down and safely get out of the breaking waves. Cape Horn, Chile.

A gentoo penguin steals another rock from a nesting pair near its own nest. Penguins are notorious thieves and you can spend the whole day watching them run back and forth snatching rocks from their colony partners for their own nests. Port Charcot, Antarctica.

A male polar skua tries, unsuccessfully, to entice a female into courtship despite an impressive display. Robert Point, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.

Likely a fur seal skull rests bleached on the beach at Robert Point, Antarctica. Robert Point, Antarctica.

With “Fly-Cruise” operations, the flight into the military airstrip on King George Island is weather dependent. On this day, we got the call that the plane was in the air and operations would start at 2:30am. This photo was taken at 3am, driving boats in 40 knot winds, getting soaked by wind blown chop as we shuttled first luggage and then guests to shore to meet the passengers arriving at 5am. Frei Station, Maxwell Bay on King George Island, Antartica.

This Russian Orthodox church at Bellinghausen Station is the Southernmost wood/log church in the world. This was taken at about 3:30am. King George Island, Antartica.

A view across the bay. The Antarctic Peninsula is bridged from the west to east side by a continuous ice plateau. Winds absolutely scream across it and roar down towards the sea on either side, creating dramatic moments as mountains appear and disappear behind clouds. Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

A polar skua shakes the water off mid-bath. Cuverville Island, Antarctica.

An Antarctic tern rests on its own tiny piece of brash ice and lets us drift over in the zodiac to say hello. This was moment where the tilt LCD screen was essential. The camera was held outside the zodiac just centimetres above the water, creating a better eye-level experience. Cuverville Island, Antarctica.

Midnight. The sunsets at the right time of year are endless and eventually turn into dawn without going fully dark. The crispness and lack of noise (full image, 22 MB) in the late night shots is attributed entirely to the stabilized image sensor. This photo was taken from a moving ship, at midnight, with a handheld 70-200mm lens. Normally that wouldn’t be possible. Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.

Midnight looking the other way. The sunsets at the right time of year are endless and eventually turn into dawn without going fully dark. Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.

A gentoo penguin takes a break on an iceberg complete with sizeable ice cave and personal swimming pool. Foyne Harbour, Antarctica.

A group of 30-40 orcas came and played with the boat before transiting on. Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.

Glass. We got lucky and transited the Lemaire Channel for a second time under absolutely incredible conditions. Usually at this time of year the channel is impassable due to sea ice. Taken with the prototype f/2.8 24-70mm. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

Abstract form and azure colours often tempt one to jump in for a swim. The tropical colours occur from light reflecting off the submerged ice that often sticks quite far out around an iceberg and is called the “tongue.” Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

A larger killer whale spy hops and vocalizes above the water (a high pitch squeaking and clicking noise) beside a smaller, and likely baby killer whale. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

A killer whale surfaces right beside the Ocean Nova, its blowhole is already open as it begins to exhale used air before even breaching the surface. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

Zooming in on the often overwhelming scale of polar landscapes sometimes helps to contextualize the scale and improbability of snow even sticking to its steep surfaces. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

Full moon, midnight again. Heading northbound. Another instance of extreme gratefulness for the stabilized image sensor. Taken on a long handheld lens on a moving ship in the middle of the night. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

Full moon, midnight again. Heading northbound. Lemaire Channel, Antarctica.

Scale. The boats riding at anchor are about 15 feet long. The icebergs are relatively small. Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

A gentoo penguin howls at the sky as another runs towards the camera with a stone stolen from its neighbour. The Ocean Nova rides at anchor in the distance. Cuverville Island, Antarctica.

A kelp gull isn’t wanted. An arctic tern dive bombed this gull invading its nesting site without success —thought both let each other know what was what. Cuverville Island, Antarctica.

Two chinstrap penguins squint as snow howls down over the black volcanic rock of Deception Island. After a long time spent further south, the lichens and algae that give the South Shetland Islands further north appear to be as colourful as a rainforest in contrast. Baily Head, Deception Island, Antarctica.

A chinstrap penguin takes a moment to look around before tucking its head away from the wind and snow again. Baily Head, Deception Island, Antarctica.

Blake Hornblow rides offshore at Baily Head. Usually swell and huge beach break prevents any landings and all drivers, myself included, have to suit up in drysuits in case the boats are flipped. Luckily this was a very mellow day. Baily Head, Deception Island, Antarctica.

A giant petrel with a several meter wing spans ambles past on its way to its nesting site —amidst the whale bones of an ancient and ruined sealers hut. I was especially appreciative of the absolutely silent shutter as it didn’t surprise and potentially ruin intimate wildlife encounters like this one. Elephant Point, Livingston Island, Antarctica.

Two staff walk past elephant seals and the meandering waterways crossing a glacial moraine. Snow Island in the background. Elephant Point, Livingston Island, Antarctica.

The sun sets over Port Lockroy, the southernmost post office in the world — look for the hut. Port Lockroy, Antarctica.


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