keep your distance and be mindful of your surroundings…
I was going to say I was trying to perfect the one handed shower this morning but if you haven’t read the last blog post then you might have a completely different idea of the reasons why. That’s not to say I haven’t perfected the art of the one handed shower in the past…. …when you’ve broken your arm as many times as I have it sort of becomes natural!
Before I left home Id went shopping in a local sports store to layer up in preparation for this trip. I need not have bothered in the end because in the end Canada last year was colder. The advice is to layer up with the most layers on the first trip and at least then you can take layers off and adjust. With the ship supplied waterproofs I didn’t need the specialist trousers Id bought 12 years ago but only wore once (in Canada) but the thermal base layers and fleeces I did buy were invaluable. The cheap as chips (2 quid I think) fleece liner gloves were one of the best buys I brought with me. I have expensive neoprene specialist photographer gloves, I had skiing gloves with me, both designed for long periods of time out in the cold, wandering around or standing still. The zodiac and shore trips were 2-3 hours long maximum and whilst the evening cruises could get bone chilling, there was little sitting around so small, light, easy to take on and off, easy to dry gloves were just the job.
That’s probably not the gear advice a lot of people have been asking for but I rarely talk about camera equipment other than a recent tripadvisor post to describe some of my sealed waterproof cameras and lenses (again invaluable here in Antarctica) but I can often rave about the small pieces of insignificant kit or adapted things that enable me to continue shooting when normally Id have to shut down are crucial. For example having learned in Canada that a lot of time was taken up with taking things out and replacing and taking layers on and off, I bought some cheap carabiners in Aldi (20 for 3 or 4 quid) and attached them to a lot of stuff I would be temporarily taking on and off. So for example one each was attached to the loops on my skiing gloves. So instead of taking off, putting in my pocket, watching every time I took them out, I just clipped them to the D ring on my jacket and then took my hands out.
Its one of the things I have learned from my travels and it is appropriate here in this pristine wilderness. You are a long way from home. You are a long way from buying another set of ski gloves and do you really want your lasting legacy to be a set of ski gloves lying in a bay or part of an iceberg or worse tangled up in wildlife?
There were a right few people down for breakfast this morning and the place was buzzing. There was land visible from every window. Land, for the first time in days. And what land, snow covered, mist shrouded, cold, damp, icy and completely silent. The silence really hits you when the boat is stopped. A quick walk out on the snow covered deck and its as if you have your ear plugs in. Nothing other than the hum of the ships generators. Walking along the snow covered decks down to the gangway the silence and gravity of the moment wasn’t lost on us. Everyone was strangely quiet, that quietness that you get when you walk into a large cathedral.
The routine for each excursion was the same, down to the boot room to get your boots on, suit up, check everything is attached, out and disinfect your boots and then join the queue on the lower deck for the gangway. Check everything again in the queue and watch where you are putting your feet. I thought it might be worthwhile making sure I wasn’t one of the first in the queue, that way I could watch and see how other people get down the gangway and into the boat. Going on your arse first trip on the first day would be a great way to get your name known to the few people who hadn’t noticed the bright green Irish shirt wandering around the ship on St Patrick’s Day. Standing in the queue is a good opportunity to look around and take in some of the things that were covered by the days of lectures so far, the difference between the types of ice (pancake ice here in the bay), what to look out for for whales and seals. Its all starting to come together.
My turn to hold hands with the big burly Russian sailor who would use that grip to pull me out of the icy water if I go head first into the drink instead of stepping onto the zodiac. I try to learn please and thank you every where I go and nowhere was spasiba more appropriate than when I got my backside safe shuffling along the zodiac!
We were off, gliding across the still morning water and everything including our research ship was a shade of grey. Ive been on Belfast Lough in my own boat on mornings like this but gliding through inky black water between the pancake and brash ice, Ive never felt further from home. The atmosphere was subdued expectation or more hope than expectation.
I had a few things I would like to see, a few things I wanted to do and a whole host of things I hoped to see and do. With previous trips to Norway and Vancouver, very little had gone right over the whole period. I was lucky to get photos from both places and deep down you know you will be lucky here to get to see anything at any random given time, never mind get photos of it.
This first trip would be a bay cruise with no shore landing. Good to get your bearings and get used to the procedures, climates and excursion routines, hopefully before seeing some wildlife later in the week when we get tuned to know what to look out for.
Well that was the plan but within minutes we had a ‘whats that over there?’ before gliding over to see a couple of Humpback whales logging. Logging is what they do when they are at rest, they float with their blowholes near the surface and breathe in and out. Click on the youtube video below for a short clip of one breathing. (the black log middle rightish of the screen)
Once you hear that noise, you then realise that in the silence all around you, that noise is happening all around you and the place isn’t silent after all. It is one of the most magical noises I have ever heard. There are whales all around, all just lying there resting on the surface. Far from being a barren landscape you realise the logs in the distance aren’t logs because there aren’t any trees, they are resting whales. Honest to goodness real life whales, and on hour one of trip one on the first day!
Then a call comes across the radio and the engine springs into life and we race across to another part of the bay. What could be more important than sitting here watching Humpback whales breathe? Well a pod of Minke whales cutting through the glassy water, that’s what. Apparently seeing this many Minke whales together is unusual but the word unusual is a bit hard to quantify as you skim across the surface of the water in Antarctica in a zodiac looking for a pod of whales.
To the untrained eye, (i.e. mine) the sight of the dorsal fins cutting through the water initially sent a chill up my spine. Whilst these huge animals weren’t sharks, the thought did cross my mind that we all wouldn’t be as happy or excited if it was great whites breaking the surface and circling our boats. The layers of clothes would come in useful then as apparently sharks can smell fear and there would probably be a lot of fear to smell!
Its genuinely one of those times when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here you are as far from home as its possible to get and you are surrounded by things you’ve only ever seen on tv. Surreal doesn’t really cover it.
On the way back to the ship we came across a juvenile fur seal and it was fascinating to watch the behaviour that we had heard about in the lectures just the day before. In my photography talk on the ship I mentioned a lot about listening to the local guides, the whale guy, the seal guy, the onboard photographer, the ice queen and the historical lectures. They aren’t just time fillers, these are the people who know their stuff, are passionate enough to put themselves through this journey time after time and dedicated to their own areas. I learned more about my photography on this trip from them than from anyone else. This seems an odd thing to say but getting to know your subject is one of the key components of being successful at any area of photography. I doubt there’s another photographer who knows as much about Belfast and Northern Ireland than I do. I probably do about 10 times the hours in research than the actual taking photos. Its knowing the small stuff that allows you to focus in on particular areas or to know that a particular landscape is glacial here in Ireland which can translate to other places in the world. Just small titbits of information about what way a seal behaves either passively or aggressively is enough to make you wait that split second to press the shutter. As I learned in my first day on my first job, experience is the thing you get 30 seconds after you needed it. Its wise to rely on other peoples experience and to learn from them.
The fur seal was just our introduction to the seal community here, we came across a leopard seal in hunting mode and from watching it slinking around, listening to the previous lecture and then asking a few questions when I got back, I thought Id like the opportunity to take a photo of it in full hunting mode. Probably little or no chance with the random nature of things, the guys from National Geographic spend days or weeks just to get one set of photos, they aren’t at the vagaries of a 16 day itinerary subject to weather and so on.
Our seal quota was complete when we came across a crabeater seal lying on an iceberg (yes really) on the way back to the ship. Great photo ops and it was hard to believe we had seen all this on our first excursion on our first day.
I genuinely didn’t expect to see this much in the whole trip but it was back to the ship to thaw out, have lunch, photography lecture and then on to our first shore excursion to the worlds largest Gentoo penguin colony. It felt as though Id earned lunch today.
This was it, the first shore landing of the trip. Cuverville island and the worlds biggest Gentoo penguin colony. I had been told that one of the things I will remember about the trip is the smell approaching the penguins, the stench of rotting fish and penguin droppings. Only to be surpassed by the smell them before you see them Elephant seals. Its probably more to do with the absence of any other smells than anything else but to be honest I was just concentrating on not getting my arse wet falling in getting off the zodiac. Shuffle to the front, swing your legs over, make sure they are planted firmly, stand up in the water and walk ashore. Yes seems simple. This was one of the main reasons for the carabiners. Make sure everything is tied down and nothing is loose that can catch on anything that will make your first shore trip a short one. In itself very little we had to do was dangerous but that’s all relative. Id learned in Canada that taking a walk in -25C and telling noone where I was going was just stupid. Yes it might only be a few hundred yards but fall in deep snow at that temperature and they wont find you until spring.
Same here, its not the falling in that is inherently dangerous but the rapid cooling effect and the having to dedicate a boat to take you back to the ship to warm up before you get hypothermia. Again I was in more danger of getting hypothermia sitting in my back garden but in my back garden I could just walk into the house, am less than 200 metres from the doctors surgery and less than 10 miles from 4 major hospitals. Be mindful of your surroundings, that old Jedi quote keeps coming back to me.
So I managed to land ashore with all the grace that a 44 year old man dressed like the michelin man clambering off a rubber boat on a stone beach in the snow and ice could muster. Thankfully everyone else must have been of the same opinion as the cameras and videos were all firmly planted in pockets and backpacks during this phase of operations.
So the shore procedure is to get to a safe level and deposit your lifejacket in a pile. That way when the last boat leaves and there are any lifejackets lying on the beach there will be a hell of a lot of forms to be filled in. IAATO specify the distance to leave to respect wildlife under all possible circumstances, how to carry waste, how to check belongings to make sure no litter is left and Im assuming somewhere in there is something about human castaways. We were the last ship calling this season so we really were on our own, all the summer bases were closed and having read the book on Tom Crean and the Shackleton expedition staying here for 2 years I made sure I wasn’t in the last group leaving any shore excursion.
Finally breathing out again after depositing my lifejacket in the growing pile I looked up along the shore. There is nothing in any of the guidebooks, nothing in travellers tales and blogs and nothing in historical documents that prepare you for the sheer comedy that is a penguin walking down a steep slope, going on its ass, sliding quite a distance and then getting up, dusting itself off and looking back up whence it came. Its slippy up there that ice dontcha know. A genuine laugh out loud moment, I thought these guys were supposed to be used to these conditions.
Penguins are comedy gold and we would all talk for hours over dinner and later on in the bar about what we saw.
Antarctica is a protected environment so there are only limited places where you can walk and the visiting area is quite small in places. The IAATO briefing mentions the minimum distance we have to keep from the wildlife but obviously no-one has told the penguins this. Particularly the juvenile inquisitive ones who just walk up to you and stare. As I mentioned before surreal doesn’t quite cover it. Looking behind me and having a penguin entourage is something Im not going to forget in a hurry.
Whilst the beauty and humour in Nature was there to see in spades the cruelty wasnt far behind. This was the last visiting ship of the season and even though the place seemed full of penguins this really was the end of the breeding season and most of the penguins had already left for the water. The remaining juveniles with their downy fluff probably wouldn’t survive as there was little time left for them to fully develop and become self sufficient before the winter set in.
Throughout the colony Skuas stalked looking for the young and the weak and in this environment there’s no such thing as mercy.
Right at the very end of the trail I lay down in the snow to get some long distance shots of a group of penguins on a slight crest against the glacier in the background but it wasnt long before a very inquisitive juvenile decided to take a close interest in what I was doing. He or she obviously hadnt read the IAATO briefing on acceptable distance limits!
It wasn’t long before I felt a gentle tug at my trousers which I assumed was one of the guides telling me to back off a bit. I didn’t want to disturb the wee fella so started to back off slowly only to get my other leg and arm tugged as well. Looking back there wasn’t another person to be seen but there were three other penguins nibbling at my waterproofs. So much for no interaction.
All too soon it was time to not be the last person back to the ship so as we had a bit of time left our zodiac took a short tour of the bay and it was the first time I got to see the really blue blue ice icebergs up close. Id come across this type of blue ice before in the alps. Old blue clear glacial ice. You forget how blue it actually is. Have I mentioned its blue?
Well here’s a photo to prove it.
Back then to the ship for afternoon tea, then happy hour, then dinner and then one of the ‘fireside chat’ lectures in the bar. Dangerous thing the fireside chat in the bar… …particularly as Im doing the one tomorrow night.
To say the discussions on board that evening were animated is a massive understatement. Two things dawned on most of us, firstly that we had seen as much in one day as most of us had expected to see in the whole trip and that the lack of phone, tv, internet, facebook, twitter and everything else was actually causing this group of human beings to actually talk to each other. Something Id missed on last years trip in the Norwegian Arctic although that probably has more to do with that particular demographic than anything else.
Tomorrow was going to be a long day with another 6am start, trip to Goudier Island, cruising the Lemaire Channel and French passage then my fireside chat in the evening followed by an unscheduled Q+A in the bar where I would no doubt answer questions over a medicinal hot whiskey.
Again professionalism and discretion took over and I retired from the bar about 11pm. Big day tomorrow.