antarctica

Packing 101: Packing for Antarctica

It’s not that I don’t like the cold, it’s really that I don’t know it. I’ve lived in coastal California most of my life, so my idea of a chilly day is one where the high is 50F. Not exactly well-equipped for kitting out in preparation of visiting the polar regions. Luckily for me, early on I stumbled upon the TripAdvisor forums, more specifically the Antarctic forum. So. Much. Information. Amongst all the advice and tips there were some really handy items like a pre-made Google docs packing list. Special advice for photographers about gloves that enabled me to actually manipulate the camera controls.

In my experience, the ship was kept very warm but there will be cold drafts so plan on having some warm slippers or shoes to even it out. I bought some knockoff Uggs before the trip and I LOVED them. They were great for rushing out on deck to spot the whales, and warm enough that even the coldest drafts didn’t give me much trouble. Highly recommended.

The Gullet, South of the Antarctic Circle

It wasn’t quite as cold as it looks here, really.

The great thing about wearing several layers is that you can add/remove as needed to achieve your preferred temperature. This is easier if the layering items are of different weights. What does that mean?

  • Lightweight: silk or polypropylene
  • Midweight: thicker polypro/merino
  • Heavyweight (aka Expedition weight): yet thicker polypro, merino, fleece
  • Fleece (also comes in different weights from Polarfleece 100 to 300)

You want to have an assortment of these things in different weights so that you can mix and match according to the weather and your own cold sensitivity. I did learn on this trip that I am not very cold sensitive at all really, so your mileage will almost certainly vary. The temperatures can range from 20F to 50F, and the wind can be incredibly cold and biting.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

It actually got to near 50F that day, the penguins were panting in the heat.

For a fair weather shore excursion  (eg: no heavy wind, no snow or rain):

Feet: one pair silk socks, one pair heavyweight socks

Body: lightweight polypro longsleeve top, lightweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Hands: midweight gloves (mine did not have the touch-screen capacity but the weight is the same)

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus lightweight wool knit hat (I have very thick hair so having a cold head is never an issue for me)

Top Layer:  Quark-provided parka and  North Face waterproof trousers (this is what you always wear ashore, regardless of what’s underneath). I removed the button-in fleece from my parka as that just made it too bulky for me and just wore it above my regular windproof fleece jacket. Quark loaned us muck boots for the expedition and they were very thick rubber and I found them quite warm.

Comfort quotient: Delightful. The only thing that was ever noticeably cold was my chin, cause the gaiter kept sliding down. Of course, your mileage may vary. The thing to remember is that for many North Americans, the summer temperatures in Antarctica will be WAY warmer than what you normally contend with in winter.

My friend Amy photographing the Adelies

My friend Amy here not long before the katabatic winds started up and the temperature dropped precipitously.

Questionable weather shore excursion (snow falling or imminent, windy)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, midweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: nice. Occasionally the weather would change and I’d have to unzip my top fleece layer or even take it off and stick it in my backpack, but the choice was there which was nice

Zodiac Excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Beautiful day for a zodiac excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Zodiac Excursions (when you don’t move very much so cannot generate your own heat)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, heavyweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: Well, hate to say it but your butt will get cold. Sitting for a while on the rubber raft’s edge will slowly sap a lot of the warmth from you. Nothing to be done about it really. Once you’re back on the ship you’ll warm right up.

So what did I end up bringing in the end? My expedition clothing consisted of:

  • 1 pair waterproof trousers
  • 2 pair lightweight long underwear bottoms (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 pair midweight long underwear bottoms
  • 1 pair heavyweight long underwear bottoms
  • 2 lightweight long underwear top (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 midweight long underwear top
  • 1 heavyweight long underwear top
  • 1 lightweight fleece (North Face)
  • 2 mid-weight fleeces (North Face)
  • 2 pairs fleece trousers (often worn on ship instead of jeans or whatever)
  • 3 pairs gloves: silk liners, midweight liners, ski gloves
  • 2 gaiters (light and medium weight)
  • 2 pair lightweight socks (silk liners, actually)
  • 2 pair midweight socks (ski socks)
  • 2 pair heavyweight socks (heavy wool “hunting” socks)

It sounds like a lot, but most of it packed up pretty small. I also employed some space-saving bags where you press the air out (useful for the fleeces).

While on the ship I had some fleeces and some cotton trousers for lounging around in. A couple of v-neck wool blend sweaters and a pashmina-like shawl if my neck was feeling particularly cold. The one thing to keep in mind here, is that is not some fashion show, not some fancy dress-for-dinner cruise. No one cares what you’re wearing, so bring only what you need. The ship has laundry of course, so you don’t need to have too large a wardrobe. One thing I will say is pack a large ziploc bag for those waterproof trousers, cause nothing stinks up a suitcase like penguin guano. You have been warned. I had to wash them twice when I got home to get the funk out.

One final note: this is a great opportunity to search out deals at those online retailers that sell last-season’s colors and closeouts for hiking/camping gear. Most everything I got was from these retailers and it saved me a TON on money. So I had bright turquoise long underwear? Who cares!

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Storm at Saunders Island, the Falkland Islands.

I’ve been really busy the past couple of weeks with family visiting, work and doing a whole lot of captioning for my agent. As a result I haven’t had much time to write up anything. But while adding keywords to a bunch of images from the Falklands, I came across these images of a fierce wind and rain/sleet storm that came up out of nowhere while we were visiting Saunders Island. As the trip was just getting started, this was the first time most of us had experienced the insane changeability of the weather in the Southern Latitudes.

Out of nowhere, a giant cloud appeared and the wind strengthened considerably.

Falkland Islands. Saunders Island. Tourists walk towards a coming storm.

It began picking up the sand and whipping it against our waterproof pants.

Falkland Islands. Saunders Island. Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua)

You can see the haze here, which I think was equal parts water and sand.

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Some penguins hustled up to the safety of the colony while others took one look at the wind and just went back into the ocean.

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Needless to say, my camera’s sensor needed a good cleaning that night.

 

Polar Photography Tips

Or, why I’m so cavalier with my gear and how it sometimes bites me in the ass.

1. Condensation is a function of dew point, not a matter of temperature change, so the humidity is what matters, not the cold.  In the polar regions, unless its actively raining it’s probably going to be pretty dry, both inside and outside the ship. Therefore going to the trouble of putting your camera and lenses in ziploc bags before bringing them inside is probably not going to be necessary; I’ve always just left them in a closed-up camera bag for an hour or so and I’ve never had a problem with condensation.

2. You’d be surprised how wet your gear can get with no ill effects. I’ve shot in drizzle countless times and never had any problem with anything getting fogged up or shorting out. That being said, it’s good to have some kind of rain cover with you at all times in case it starts really coming down. Sometimes, a ziploc bag with a holes cut for the camera strap is enough. Sometimes you want one of these rain covers. When it’s just spitting, you can get by with adding a lens hood and keeping a chamois handy to dry off the front element and the barrel of the lens.

Wandering Albatross in the snow

3. Bring backups. There are no camera stores on the Antarctic peninsula. I rarely keep my lenses in any kind of bags or cases (aside from the camera bag itself), and while I was reorganizing gear in my camera bag one day, one of my lenses rolled off the bed and hit the floor. The filter cracked and the filter ring was so bent by the impact that I could not get it off. Good thing I had a backup – I just tossed that lens into a drawer, grabbed the backup and I was good to go. Once I got home I took it in to a camera store and they got the filter off. The front element was fine; the filter took the impact… which is why every one of your lenses should have a filter on it, especially on a boat.

4. On a moving ship, an image-stabilized lens is a lifesaver. My recent trip to Antarctica is the first time I’ve really shot with one, and I was amazed at how sharp some images were – even of birds flying behind the ship.

Giant Petrel

5. Don’t be afraid to change lenses. Yes, every once in a while why you’re doing that some bits of dust are going to blow in and get on your sensor. It happens. Just don’t be that guy on my recent trip who only ever seemed to have his 100-400mm on his camera. You will miss shots that way. You’ve paid all this money to get there, now you’re missing shots cause you don’t want to change lenses. It’s a cryin’ shame. At one point, one of these long-lens guys commented; “I just gotta wait til that iceberg is a little further away!”

6. Bring sensor cleaners.  When you get a bit of dust in there on your sensor after changing lenses, you can use one of these swabs to clean off the dust. They work like a charm and are easy to pack.

7. Bring some really thin gloves, eg: liners like these, and slightly heavier gloves like these: both enabled me to tweak controls on my camera with gloves on, which was essential. I really found I rarely needed more than one of these on anyway – it was not as cold as I’d expected.

8. Stay out on deck.  I spent hours on deck just watching the landscape roll by, and it enabled me to get a lot of great shots I would not have gotten otherwise. When you spy that great iceberg from the lounge, its too late. By the same token, carry your camera with you to meals. It can be a bit of a drag in a crowded dining room, but when they spot that whale it’s great not to have to run down to your room to grab your gear.

Iceberg

9. Bring two camera bags. To Antarctica I brought a backpack (and dry bags) for our shore excursions because you need to have two hands free to get in and out of the zodiac. At the last minute I decided to bring my regular shoulder bag too. I was so glad I did — it’s so lightweight and easy to have at your side all the time while on board.

10. Look at your pictures (especially to check for spots on the sensor), but don’t really edit during the trip. You want to take enough of a look to figure out if you screwed something up, or have some setting wonky on your camera, but you don’t want to get so deep into editing that you miss additional photo opportunities while you’re doing that. There’s gonna be plenty of time to edit once you get home.

11. The last zodiac is the best zodiac. On most of our landings, I was one of the last people back to the ship.  Given how changeable the weather is down there, you really never know what is going to happen. One day on South Georgia, as I was slowly making my way back to the landing site, the sun started to come out, and sea turned a light turquoise blue. It was gorgeous. The expedition team literally had to chase me into a zodiac so we could leave for the next location. But the pictures I got in those last few minutes are great.

South Georgia. St. Andrews.

 

Ode to the Antarctic Fur Seal

“Whatever you do, just don’t get bit.”

It’s not often that you hear those words, and especially not in reference to what looks for all intents and purposes like a lethargic, terminally bored seal. But, then you see the teeth. They are sharp. And apparently they are in a mouth that’s full of bacteria, not unlike a Komodo dragon. Get bit, and the deep puncture wounds will surely get infected. So don’t get bit. And don’t bother trying to run, cause they can run faster than you can. So just stare them down, make yourself big by throwing your arms out, make some noise and don’t turn your back.

“Okay, guys: Good Luck!”

That in a nutshell is your briefing on the dangers of the highly territorial and incredibly numerous Antarctic Fur Seal. You don’t expect to need to be briefed on the ways of a vicious seal. Hell, the words “vicious seal” sound like an oxymoron. But, here we are.

When we think of seals, we picture a lazy, maybe not so smart creature whose hobbies consist of napping and barking noisily at another seal who’s just stepped on them. They don’t move all that much and don’t seem very agile out of the water. They are certainly in no way frightening.

But those are not these seals.

fur seal

 

“True” seals are ones where all their spine and hip bones are in a line. They flop around or shimmy side to side to move forward and therefore can’t do so very quickly. Eared seals, like the Sea Lion or the Antarctic Fur Seal, have hip bones set up in such a way that they can get their flippers (their feet, basically) under them and use that for forward propulsion.  That’s why you don’t want to run. They’re fast.

furry

Personality-wise these are not the happy-go-lucky seals you see basking in the sun and napping all day. These seals are suspicious. They are short tempered. Some are clearly incensed that you have dared to walk across their beach and want to make sure that you know this. So they make a move on you. You will want to run, believe me. The first time a fur seal opens its mouth wide and lunges towards you, that’s your first instinct.

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But in order to so anything at all on these South Georgia beaches, you have to navigate your way through or around them. So you are faced with scenes like this: a veritable minefield of fur seals. Making your way across that field takes careful planning and a bit of bravado. And please don’t make the mistake of coming over one of those hillocks and surprising one. You definitely don’t want to do that.

minefield

The core of the issue, from a fur seal’s point of view, is that you should not be here at all. They want to make sure that you understand this, and leave post-haste. Even the babies get in on it – the first place we landed there was one very young pup that basically chased us up the beach, teeth bared the whole way. It was quite the introduction.

Suspicious pup
The first few days I was torn between hating their horrible attitude and determined desire to take a bite out of me, and really respecting such a badass animal. As the days went on though, it became funnier and funnier. They were so angry, so suspicious, so peeved, they were really a caricature.

Fur seal

So I made a point to try and get a picture of every time a seal gave me a dirty look. To chronicle their suspicion. Their anger. Their side-eye. It was not that difficult.

Epic Antarctica: Crossing the circle via the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula

I finally got around to making a Blurb photo book from my trip. It’s fairly short, only 30 pages or so, and contains only a bit of explanatory text and captioning. Not really sure icebergs need any introduction, to be honest. I wanted the focus to be on the images. Here are a few pages by way of a sneak peek. It’s also for sale in the Blurb bookstore.

Spread2

 

Book Page

 

Book spread