Come for the penguins, stay for the fur seals!
I had done a lot of research before this trip, so I knew quite a bit about what to expect and what would await me there. Years ago I worked for a photographer who visited South Georgia and Antarctica several times, so I had seen tons of pictures from these places, and could recognize many of them. But even with all that, there were definitely some surprises. Here’s my top ten:
1. This is the best whale watching cruise you’ve never heard of. I’ve seen my share of whales. I’ve gone whale watching on the California coast, on Vancouver Island in Canada, even in Iceland. But even I was shocked at the number of whales we saw. Not only the variety of different species, but the sheer number of whales we saw was incredible.
2. Antarctic fur seals are incredibly territorial and downright aggressive creatures. Before our first landing in South Georgia we got a detailed briefing on how to deal with them (basically: stand your ground), but I was shocked to see tiny pups going after us as if they were great big bulls. It was cute when it wasn’t sort of terrifying. Those teeth are sharp.
3. We were really busy. Between the daily landings and the lectures on history and wildlife and geology, meals and being exhausted from being out in the fresh air all day, I had basically no time to read or properly edit my images while on the ship.
4. Just how close to the wildlife you get. The rule is that you need to stay 15 feet away from the animals, keeping in mind that they are free to come as close to you as they’d like… and that is often pretty darn close.
4. Doing photography every day for 3 weeks really hones your skills. I’m not sure why this had not occurred to me, but in the course of one of these longer journeys, if you’re using your camera every day and taking at least a quick peek at the results, you’re going to get better. Not only will using your camera become more automatic, but you will be better at evaluating the unique light conditions that occur down there.
5. My shipmates were younger than I expected. When I was in Dallas waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I saw the typical cruise crowd all heading down to their South American cruises. Most of them were well over 70, their tickets and IDs hanging on those pockets you wear around your neck. But not on our ship. The group seemed to be about half over 60 and half under, which gave us a good mix. We also had ~ 30% Australians, which of course made the whole thing more fun.
6. The wind is pretty much incessant. If your eyes are sensitive to wind and tear up a lot, make sure to bring wrap-around style sunglasses to help protect them. It will make a big difference. Or be like me and just keep your camera in front of your face all the time.
7. Getting in and out of zodiacs is easier than I expected… and after learning how to do it in the swells of South Georgia, the landings on the Antarctic peninsula were downright easy, as the water is so much more protected. By the end of it we were all experts, sliding towards the front and swinging our legs over the edge and landing in the water in one smooth motion, like we’d been doing it all our lives.
9. Running up and down the stairs to get to and from your lower-deck cabin is pretty good exercise. My apartment is on the third floor, so running up and down stairs is not new to me, but I was surprised at how by the end of the trip, I was able to race up all 5 flights from my cabin to the deck above the bridge without missing a beat.
10. The weather was fascinating. Between the come-out-of-nowhere katabatic winds (and attendant lenticular clouds) and the thick cumulus clouds that seemed to hover just feet above the water, I was constantly amazed by it. There were thick fogs that dissipated in minutes, mist, snow, sleet, rain — we saw pretty much every kind of weather at some point. I loved it.
One thing that doesn’t surprise me? People ask if I want to go back. The answer is simple: In a heartbeat.