Best laid plans… …and serendipity
I slept soundly enough, just woke up about a half hour before I was supposed to, which was still bloody early so I thought Id just get ready and head up to the bar deck for some coffee. Nobody passed me on my deck, the next deck or all the way up to the bar. Nobody in the bar, nobody on the outside deck. I checked my watch again and it was just turning 6am and yes I did have the right time zone.
Somehow I had managed to miss the 50 knot winds and the ship being thrown around most of the night which explained why no-one else was there and when the first stragglers arrived to throw my plans for taking command of the ship and sailing home I realised that it must have been rough and that our days itinerary was probably out the window.
It was impossible to land at our station visit and the ship was now heading for the sheltered waters of Lockroy Bay and Goudier Island. We had missed out on one of the possible highlights of the trip as far as commerce goes as Vernansky Research station was our only available spot to spend money on Antarctica at the Ukraine base post office and gift shop. Well you cant go all that way and not bring some tat home can you? Instead we settled off Goudier island not far from the British Port Lockroy station which had unfortunately closed the week before for the winter season. It was lucky that the weather got so bad the night before because travelling in a Russian flagged ship calling at a Ukranian base during the Crimea crisis might not have been such a good idea at all.
Anyway moving on it also meant that our planned trip through the Lemaire channel was at risk as we were now out of position but we would at least try the approaches to the channel later in the day and see how we got on.
It was in harbour here that we saw our first and only signs of human life, a Chilean Navy helicopter flew low in over the nearby mountain range, shortly followed by a Chilean Navy ship on patrol from the nearby Chilean base and then the British research ship visiting to clear out the rest of Port Lockroy’s things before winter.
It seemed odd to see evidence of human life here and even odder to know that the Chilean base is all year round, partially to continue any possible future claim to land here.
The cruise today would be a relatively short one as the brash sea ice had started to close in around Port Lockroy and there was no chance of landing. It was more a stretch your legs type thing to get us and the kayak team out for the morning.
The video from yesterday shows the type of thing, cruising around icebergs and brash ice.
The brash ice has this weird tinkling noise as it floats and collides together. Think of thousands of ice cubes in glasses all clinking together at once and you are still nowhere near close to the noise. Again surreal is the only way to describe it. You sort of can place the noise of ice clinking together, just not on this scale! Its hard to make out the tinkling noise in the clip above the engine and wind noises but it sort of gives you an idea.
The kayak team were having a ball of a time today, calm sheltered water and beautiful backlit glaciers to paddle past. Now its a bit of a sore point (well not really I doth protest too much) about skipping the kayaking but for safety sake you had to be able to perform a barrel roll in the kayak and get out of it quickly. Now I would take a risk with my life no problem but its the poor buggers who would try to rescue me or the guides that might take the flak for my stupidity that I decided not to bother. I have no regrets about that decision despite my whinging on the boat! I have a kayak here at home and do paddle here in worse conditions (although not as cold) but its a sit on top and there are no problems with me falling in and getting back on (if you don’t count the time I nearly drowned myself on Lough Neagh but we don’t have to go in to that story right now…)
My boat driver that morning was one of the most elegant women I have ever met in my life. Considering I used to do a lot of red carpet work, that is saying something. Argentinian (of course) of Italian descent so even after a night of rough seas she still turned out professional, demure and with a style and charm that’s hard to beat. She was also our ice expert its because of her lecture I know more than I ever thought I would know about ice.
Well that morning something happened, a call came in on the radio from the kayakers about a close encounter with a large leopard seal on the hunt and out boat driver ‘got a feeling’ for a patch of water halfway between the island the glacier the kayakers had went past.
As we motored out to the spot we passed some birds which looked like they were feeding on the remnants of the last meal the leopard seal had devoured. Would the seal he still hungry, would it still be hunting? Was it even still in this area? Out of the corner of my eye I saw some movement on the water surface between us and the island. That’s when the professional in me took over and I said nothing to anyone. The old Belfast slogan of ‘whatever you say, say nathin!’ took over and I raised my lens in the direction of the movement. I could just make out that it was a Gentoo penguin and it was swimming erratically. Either something was up with it or it had already had a passing visit from the leopard seal. It was just then a matter of keeping the camera framed on the penguin as we went past on the boat and waiting. Easier said than done in a moving zodiac but just as my fingers were getting numb I caught a bit of movement and then as with all the sports and dance photography I do everything slowed right down…
Its difficult to explain afterwards, experience tells you the right time to press the shutter. I only fired off one frame although the camera is capable of much more. The problem with machine gunning a subject is that you get a shot every 1/10 or 1/4 of a second and you might just miss that 1/25 second gap that a single frame at the right time would get you. Of course you might miss with your single frame and you get nothing at all.
I pressed the shutter and had a good feeling that Id probably never take a better photo. I don’t know what the people on the boat reacted too more, the leopard seal breaking the water or me firing off that one shot when there was nothing to see all around. Either way within seconds as the leopard seal started thrashing the now dead penguin around they had a fair idea of what Id taken the photo of. Everyone wanted to see but I don’t like to check in camera, firstly because if you are looking at the back of the camera your eyes aren’t out there looking for any danger or any other possible shot at the same time. Also screens on the back of the camera are notoriously unreliable and whilst a shot may look sharp and exposed well on the small screen, blow it up to the size required for billboards or any commercial use and it will be found lacking. Unless the shot is capable of that sort of reproduction, its useless to me. If the shot is good then I have the closing slide for my talk tonight, if not, well my 25 minute career as a wildlife photographer is over.
As you can see from the videos I did bring a small video camera with me, a waterproof one. Now as word of the leopard seal kill spread out over the radios all the boats and kayaks converged on our spot, as did the now curious and well fed leopard seal. Some of my shots still have bits of penguin hanging out of his mouth. All the zodiacs were equipped with go pro cameras on booms for placing under the boats and the huge leopard seal was circling us as well as trying to swallow one of the kayaks whole.
Basking in the estimated glory of my ‘money shot’ I thought Id get in on the act by sticking my camera under the water too and waving it around to see if it could pick anything up. I’ll look at the footage later to see if there’s anything there. So with hand turning blue one of the guides mentioned it in passing that it might not be the smartest idea Ive ever had to stick my hand in cold water next to a third of a ton hungry predator at the top of the local food chain.
‘I know, Im just thinking that’ yeah understatement of the year!
After tinkling through the brash ice for a while which strangely reminded me of Christmas for some reason we headed back to the ship for lunch and to attempt to enter the Lemaire channel approaches.
The Lemaire channel is perhaps the most photographed part of the voyage and as such is probably the least interesting from a professional photographic point of view. What was interesting was that we weren’t going to transit the channel as it was filling with ice and it was unlikely that we would get through. The plan was to progress as far as the narrows on the thrusters, then turn around and come back out.
The plan sort of worked, we did indeed get to the narrows but the amount of ice meant that we had no other choice than to try and push on through. I thought they did this for all the tourists but sure enough when everyone went out on deck and the bridge was closed and we crawled through the channel for hours you could not have parted anyones ass cheeks with a sheet of paper.
What a journey though, minke whales, penguins, icebergs, blue ice, towering cliffs above all added to the fear of being stuck here forever and going through the list seeing who we would eat first.
Its hard to pucker up and hold your breath for hours on end but eventually we made it through the channel and the crew set up an impromptu afternoon hot rum session on the front deck. There was a lot of nervous laughter and it sort of made you think that this wasn’t the normal tourist fare. The iceberg strewn passage ahead that we had to navigate to get to open water was another thing that the crew on this ship made appear normal when anyone who has seen Titanic would realise its far from normal.
The relief was visible but what happened next was one of those genuine almost wet yourself laughing moments. One of my friends innocently said that the captain should just pull over there and let us all drop anchor. I’m sure he meant it in the nautical term and he had no idea that drop anchor was Belfast slang for going to the toilet. I couldn’t breathe for laughing and it took me a while to convey the image I had in my head of all of us hanging our backsides over the side of the ship and ‘dropping anchor’. I think IAATO might have a rule about that. I certainly don’t think the Minke whales criss crossing our bow would appreciate it!
The rest of the day was spent pushing on through the French channel and out into open water to put us back into position for tomorrows excursions. As the crowd on the bow deck of the ship dwindled I stood alone out there for what must have been 2-3 hours. We have an expression back in Belfast which describes having a good time and taking in the sights/sounds/views. ‘Sure, where would you get it?’ is what we say. I didn’t think there was anywhere else in the world more appropriate than right here, right now. I was already going to skip dinner to prepare my talk tonight but why not just sit here, alone, watching antarctica go by.
I also had another one of those moments of clarity you sometimes have when travelling. The sun was beating down and I was genuinely lapping up the sunshine. One of the crew came out and suggested I go put on sunscreen. At first I wondered if this guy had a direct line to my mother but he went on to explain that this whole in the ozone layer thing I might have heard of was directly overhead and there was no protection whatsoever between my head and the sun. Its one of those times when something you hear about yet never in a million years expect to affect you directly or something you hear about that has a global but no personal impact suddenly hits home. That penny dropping moment when you realise if it hadn’t been slowed down we would all be wearing lead suits by now and life would be a hell of a lot more difficult than it is now.
Stunning, beautiful, amazing, awesome, majestic, are all just words and come nowhere close to describing the scenes I saw that day.
I’m Irish, I’m supposed to know what to say, I’m supposed to have a story to tell about everything, I’m also a photographer and every picture should tell a thousand word story. Trust me on this one, that’s not even close. I don’t know of any language that has the descriptive words for this sort of experience. Or if there is one, it is beyond my intellect.
Just as we reached open water we passed this huge tabular iceberg and I went up to the bar/lounge deck to let a few people know. I stood there without cameras for a good five minutes whilst everyone was snapping all around me. Many wondered why I was just standing there looking but eventually I cracked and with a rather loud ‘oh for fuck sake’, I sprinted across the deck, down the galleyway, down 2 decks and to my cabin to retrieve my cameras. I got some frames off through my cabin window as the light was now beautiful on this massive piece of floating ice. Another one of those ‘am I really seeing this?’ moments but I was assured other people were seeing it as well.
It was the only real clear day we had and certainly the only clear evening and we were treated to a full ocean sunset. I even got to see the green flash illusion that occurs on ocean sunsets which with many years watching sunsets on the Irish west coast, Ive never seen. To be truthful I didn’t see it here either as I had no idea what I was looking for. Someone had to show it to me on the back of their camera!
As I was skipping dinner tonight I stayed up on deck after sunset and it was another one of those laugh out loud moments. The ship slowed down slightly during dinner and in the gloom all around you could hear the sounds of whales breathing at the surface. The sea around the boat was alive with animals and it was one of the most beautiful yet ridiculous things I had ever seen. One of my friends had stayed up on deck to get a few post sunset photos (at my suggestion) and we just laughed as this was probably going on all around us the whole time yet until now we hadn’t known what to look or listen for. Humpbacks were tail flipping and bubble feeding and it was probably just as well it was too dark to take photos because we got the chance to just stand and watch and then when it got too dark to just stand and listen. You could feel the nature out there, you could feel the energy.
You could then feel the cold and I had a presentation to prepare. I got the talk before I started about making signals if I was struggling for time. I think wires were crossed a little because I thought they meant for them to signal me when Id gone on to long, they thought I was to signal them if I ran out of subject material and wanted to go into the Q+A!
The talk and the Q+A went down well and its certainly the most southern I’m ever likely to give a talk so chalk up another first for me. Well I say it went down well, maybe they were just being polite. I did promise everyone that I would reveal my ‘Death of a penguin’ shot at the end of the talk though, warts and all and give a bit of a talk on it particularly if it wasn’t up to the technical standards for sale.
I suppose Id better show the photo in that case, well its ok, not bad for someone with only 25 mins experience of wildlife photography. Its currently up for sale with Getty images along with some other select photos from my trip. Getty is an exclusive agency so its only available through them.
Well tomorrow is another day, and its a big one, the continental landing… …we hope.