Antarctica 2014 - A Most Amazing Trip
by Kevin Raber
All Photographs By Kevin Raber
The Fly Over Antarctica Workshop
Sunset Pléneau Bay
The day finally came to leave for another trip to Antarctica. There has never been any doubt that this my favorite place on earth and leaving for my fifth trip brings just as much excitement and anticipation as my first trip in 2005 did.
Unlike past trips this one was going to be different: we were going to fly over the Drake Passage and avoid 5 days in total of what can be very miserable sailing. Now, I would suggest that if you are going to Antarctica more than once, at least one of those trips you experience the Drake. It can be unpleasant or can be truly exciting but it is a badge of accomplishment to say that you crossed the Drake.
This trip, as well as the future trips we have announced and are planning, is administered by Antarctica XXI. Their attention to detail and planning is second to none. On this recent trip, they were there for us from start to finish and made the logistics of handling our group of 65 people a breeze.
Wall Art - Valparaiso, Chile
The trip began with arrival in Santiago, Chile on January 25th. This allowed a day and a half buffer before our flight to Punta Arenas on the southern extremity of Chile - a wise decision since it prevented anyone from missing flights due to winter weather issues in the north. As the leader of the workshop, one of my big worries is that someone cannot make a flight. As it turned out everyone made it on time. We had one lost set of luggage which was found and delivered to the hotel in less than 12 hours - off to a good start.
Tub On The Porch, Valparaiso, Chile
It’s funny how you sometimes have preconceived ideas about countries you are visiting. I was very pleasantly surprised by Chile and what a great country it is. Since we had a day before the departure, the LuLa team hired a guide and a driver and visited the sea coast town of Valparaiso; a small town built on a hillside and before the Panama Ccanal opened, one of the busiest ports on the western coast of South America. Graffiti is a big issue in Chile and also in Argentina. It kind of reminds me what it was like in the 70’s and 80’s in the big cities of America: graffiti everywhere.
In cities like New York they solved the graffiti problem by banning the sale of cans of spray paint. It hasn’t occurred to the folks in Chile yet. However, in the city of Valparaiso they tried something different. From what I understand, the city promotes artists to do real art rather than the graffiti fund all over Chile. We had a wonderful day with our guide walking the streets and photographing street art and street scenes. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch at a seaside restaurant and a lazy afternoon of enjoyable photography. It was quite a pleasant day.
Cotton Candy, Valparaiso, Chile
Arriving back at the hotel we found the rest of the group that was traveling to Antarctica. We hosted a small reception and introduction about what to expect followed by dinner on our own. During our briefing we prepared the group for long days and then announced we were going to be experiencing such a day on our first day. Wake up calls were set for a 3AM departure from the hotel for a 5:50 AM flight to Punta Arenas. I knew we are off to a good start when everyone made the bus on time and we had no one that was late. The trip to the airport and flight down to Punta Arenas was easy and smooth.
We arrived in Punta Arenas around 9:30 in the morning and had early check in at our hotel. This was good as we could enjoy a breakfast and a catch up nap. The group was on their own until the late afternoon when we had a briefing on Antarctica and the procedure for the next day’s flight to Antarctica and the ship boarding by Zodiac. This was where we got all our questions answered as well as fitted for boots. Antarctica XXI really showed their colors, the organization was top notch. Following the briefing we enjoyed a cocktail reception and lovely dinner at one of the older elegant hotels in Punta Arenas. During dinner we were given our flight time window. It was a very civilized 9AM flight.
Fun On The Plane To Antarctica
Because this is a flight to a remote area with no paved runway, we were restricted to certain weight limits. While it may have seemed a challenge, everyone found a way to hit the mark and we had no issues doing the fly over.
The plane landed on Frei Station’s rocky runway, a joint Chilean/Russian/Chinese Research Facility in the South Shetland Islands just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Our ship, the Ocean Nova and Antarctica XXI’s Expedition staff were there to greet us, get the group and our luggage out to the ship and help us settle in. Again they proved to be a top notch outfit as it couldn’t have gone more smoothly. After unpacking and a quick trip around the ship we had wonderful lunch. Shortly after that we did the mandatory lifeboat drill and shortly after set sail to cross the Bransfield Strait. We would be sailing the rest for the day and night to arrive at our first destination early the following morning. We started this trip off at a balmy 3˚C/37˚F - a lot nicer than many places in the north.
The LuLa team used this time to present two lectures. Michael’s was on Exposure and the other was Seeing the Shot by Kevin; this was followed by the Captain’s reception and a fine dinner. It was also our first real taste of the very fine food we would be enjoying. It’s hard to beehive that we could be at the bottom of the planet on such a nice ship with such a great group. Our trip was truly underway.
Michael Is Ready For Adventure
It did not take long for the group to get to know one and other - an amazingly diverse group with a shared passion for photography. I am always amazed that you can bring a group together from 14 different countries and have the unique bond of photography which seems to trump the everyday issues of the world.
Before retiring for the evening, many of us were on deck to photograph an amazing orange sunset and also to run through all our gear and do a preliminary systems check. Our wake up call for the morning was set for 7:00 AM, but many of us set our alarms to rise early (4:30) to shoot the sunrise.
After breakfast we geared up for our first zodiac cruise. To gear up properly for the Antarctica region you need to dress in layers. So typically, it’s long underwear, a warm middle layer, a fleece vest or sweater, waterproof pants & jacket, extra warm socks, the muck boots provided by the ship, gloves and a good hat. I also normally pack a spare hat and gloves in my camera backpack. Now pack all your cameras in the backpack you are going to use and before putting your pack on you must don the inflatable life preserver. Now you are geared up and ready to proceed to the departure ramp. The Ocean Nova has a waterline ramp that allows you to walk directly onto the Zodiac instead of a gangway stair system like other ships. This makes the on and off pretty easy.
Dramatic Ice and Skies
A Zodiac cruise is always fun: we anchored in a major cove filled with icebergs and wildlife. Each Zodiac holds around 8 passengers and the driver. Then each Zodiac heads off in their own direction to find the best combination of light and ice. This little outing was around 3 hours but seemed a lot shorter. There was so much to shoot: a Minke whale, a Humpback whale, penguins swimming across the bay and incredible icebergs.
Humpbacks and Icebergs
The landscape is dynamic, moving and changing as we watch. We would compose a shot of an iceberg but be missing something in the foreground. Then just like that, a small bergy bit would float by and give us a perfect foreground subject. Or with luck we would have a humpback sighting and it would present itself in front of an iceberg and to round it out, give us a great whale tail as it dove deep.
And so back on the ship for lunch and the Ocean Nova relocates for a shore landing.
Decisions - Decisions
Not wasting any time, the call went out to prepare for our first landing on a strange little place: Hydrugrga Rocks. Kind of in the middle of no where, it allowed us to go ashore for the first time and shoot landscapes and enjoy our first penguin experience. No matter who you are, the first time you land in Antarctica and have your first penguin encounter, it’s a big deal. Penguins are incredible birds: always busy and on a mission. They are curious about their big penguin visitors but are unfazed by us. If you stay still and sit in one place long enough, a penguin will come up to you within an arms reach and check you out. During this expedition we will experience several different kinds of penguins.
After our fill of Adelie penguins and photography we head back to the boat to start the daily ritual of downloading images to see the winning shots of the day.
During cocktail hour each day the expedition team gives a briefing in the lounge of what we experienced that day, what wildlife we saw, and what to expect the rest of the evening and the next day. The day was a full one with feeding whales alongside the ship and our two excursions. Hard to believe that after this busy day, we are told that this was just a warm up. To bed early as our wake up call is to be broadcast ship wide at 3:45am.
The Lemaire Channel Heading South - January 30th, 2014 3:45 AM
It was all hands on deck for a sunrise cruise through the Lemaire Channel. No Antarctica trip is complete without a trip through this narrow channel - especially at sunrise or sunset. I have travelled this channel a number of times and each time is different and special. This trip was no different.
It Was Beautiful Light
It was chilly morning as the sun began to light up the horizon around us. People were slowly coming to life with cameras around their necks and coffee in their hands. The channel was still a way off but clearly visible and with every passing minute as we got closer the sky got prettier. This had the makings of a beautiful morning and what would turn out to be a most spectacular day of photography and fun.
We drew closer to the channel and as we started to pass the entrance, the sky ahead of us turned a beautiful gold-yellow and orange and we had the most stunning light you could ask for making this journey. It’s hard to describe what is like to pass through tall mountains on either side of the ship. Pictures will help but it is like flying through a canyon. The water was smooth - not a breeze in the air. The sides of the mountains were reflected in the water and enhanced by the light of sunrise. On the foredeck from where everyone was shooting, there was silence except for the occasional adjectives spouted by those that just couldn’t hold back their feelings any longer. And, of course it sounded like a sporting event with the whirring of shutters and motor drives.
After we passed through the channel we made a hard left turn to what has to be one of my favorite places on the planet, Pléneau Bay.
Golden Dawn Light
Now with three cups of coffee in me and still only 5:30 AM, we were boarding zodiacs for a 2 hour cruise. This bay is known as the iceberg graveyard. Icebergs are pushed into the bay by winds and current and become grounded. This means they pretty much get locked in here and erode in a different way then while at sea. There are some amazing looking icebergs. Add whales, penguins and seals and you have one of the coolest places you can imagine to shoot photos. Each of the six Zodiacs went on their own and only on occasion did we see each other in the distance. As in each Zodiac, our driver followed our suggestions and headed to icebergs of particular interest. We all shot some amazing images. When safe, we were allowed to go right up the icebergs and shoot close ups of the textures and colors. And, for the amazingly large icebergs we would back off and wait until we got a small bergy bit to pass thought the frame adding foreground and shoot again. We were back on board around 7:30 for breakfast after a very fast moving two hours.
There was hardly any time after breakfast as we had cruised while were eating and at 9AM we were ready for another landing at the Yalour Islands.
We were only at the mid morning mark and already it felt like a full day of shooting. Everyone was out there and excited as we enjoyed two hours onshore, photographing penguins and other wildlife. We were back on board by lunch time with just enough time for a quick nap before our next landing.
A Short Hike To Great Shots
I must comment about the ship’s crew at this point. The dining room team was just fabulous. Breakfast and lunch were buffet style meals. Each table had a team of servers who by some amazing talent, were able to remember your name and what you liked to drink. I enjoyed an ice tea everyday and immediately after seating the ice tea would show up. Smiles were always on the faces of the servers. The food was really good and I must say, better than any previous cruise that I have made. The chefs were incredible and each meal was different and always the way you wanted it. At dinner we had plated meals with three choices from the menu. There were no complaints and a lot of empty plates. This team accommodated our intense schedule and rearranged meal times whenever we asked so we could maximize our photography.
Nap time was over and it is now 3 PM and we were ready for our third excursion of the day.
The Bar At Vernadsky Station
We now anchored off Vernadsky Station, a Ukrainian Research Station located on Galindez Island. We were going to do a split landing here with half the group to visit Wordie House, an old British outpost and the other half to visit the Ukrainian Research Station. Halfway through the afternoon the group would switch out. At the station we could get passports stamped, send home postcards and mail as well as buy souvenirs. This place also had a special place that a number of us found to be the place to hang out all afternoon: an amazing bar where they serve homemade vodka. Oh yeah, I found a seat and along with a number of others, we made an afternoon of shots, fun times and lots of laughs. Those that weren’t into party mode got a chance to shoot at a few different locations. Somewhere along the line, our expedition leader Morten came in to hustle us out of the bar - it was time to return to the ship for dinner.
Heading North Towards The Lemaire Channel
Earlier that day I had a meeting with Morten our expedition leader and we made a decision that if the light continued the way it had been all day, I wanted us to return to Pleneau Bay for a sunset shoot. And that is exactly what we did. While we were ate dinner, the ship started back to Pléneau Bay.
The Ocean Nova And Iceberg
This was the right move. The light turned golden and that is no exaggeration. The Zodiacs were dispatched and we had two plus hours of some of the most amazing photography you could ever ask for. The landscape and surrounding mountains and clouds just took on a whole new dimension and color. We cruised from one iceberg to another. I came away with a lot of keepers from this excursion and I could tell by the excitement when I arrived back on board that others had too.
Was That A Penguin That Just Swam By?
It was now 11PM and time to cruise back northward through the Lemaire Channel, the lingering sunset to light our way. By the time we retired everyone was exhausted. This had been a 21 hour day of photography. There were no complaints. Every one of us will remember that incredible day for the rest of our lives. Off to bed for a few hours sleep.
The wake up call came for those hearty souls that could make it at 4:15 AM. We were now sailing into the Neumayer Channel
You Couldn't Ask For Better Light And Weather
How strange to come to the foredeck as first light was breaking the horizon. I was wondering if the captain was asleep at the helm as we were headed straight for land and there appeared to be nowhere to turn. We were surrounded by large mountains and cliffs on either side of the ship. As we would come to learn over the next few hours, this was part of the fun of travelling the Neumayer Channel. It consists of a number of S turns and bends. With the water reflecting the mountainsides, it appeared that there was no channel. But somehow a path would magically appear. The ship would make a hard turn and we would find our way through the maze. This is another of those channels not to be missed when visiting Antarctica - especially if you are a photographer.
Leopard Seal and The Ocean Nova
We soon arrived at Paradise Bay and after a breakfast we were given the option of a shore landing or a Zodiac cruise. If you landed on shore you could climb a hill and get a magnificent view of this bay with its giant sized glaciers. Or, the zodiac cruise to take you along the face of calving glaciers to photograph the amazing walls of ice. Some were lucky enough to record a major calving. A calving is where a large face of the glacier separates off with a loud explosion to create a new iceberg. It is quite amazing to see and hear.
On our return to the ship for lunch, we were informed that over the next few hours we would reposition the ship for a landing at Cuverville Island.
The Ship and Icebergs
At 3:00 PM we were once again inbound in zodiacs for a landing on a rocky island. The landing was somewhat tricky as we landed on rocks. On shore were saw a number of seals and a large colony of Gentoo Penguins. We hiked this location for a while discovering penguins with chicks, seals and amazing rock formations. We also discovered how slippery rocks could be covered in penguin poop. It made for some rough going but it was all part of the adventure.
Zodiac At Sunset
On our zodiac ride back to the ship we couldn’t help notice a wonderful smell in the air and it wasn’t penguins. On arrival onboard, we were surprised to be treated to an on deck barbeque dinner. Hot wine, steaks, burgers, chicken were just a few of the selections for this fun dinner. How do you go home and tell your friends you had a dinner on the back of the ship in Antarctica with an stunning 360 degree view. It was party time as we enjoyed a wonderful evening.
Sunsets That Last A Long Time
We were informed that we would be sailing overnight with an early morning arrival at one of my favorite Antarctica locations, Deception Island.
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Whale Oil Tanks - Deception Island
After one of our first nights of complete rest we arrived at Deception Island.
Deception Island is the sunken caldera of an active volcano. It has been active a few times in the past 100 years, most recently in 1967 and 1970. The island is 8 miles in diameter. The ship enters the caldera through Neptune’s Bellows - a very narrow and dangerous channel with a big submerged rock in the middle and a ship wreck on shore as a stark warning. Once into Whalers Bay, the waters are calm and we visit an old whaling station.
Upon landing at Deception Island you can’t help but notice the black sand. And, because this is still an active volcanic area, the beach is actually warm. Where the water hits the beach, it turns to steam blown onshore like a foggy blanket. All very interesting to see.. What I love most about Deception island are the abandoned buildings and the rust of the old whale processing plant. There are giant rusty tanks, boilers and all sorts of odds and ends. There are abandoned boats, buildings and a graveyard. All make for a photographers paradise.
A few hardy souls even took a swim at this location. I have done 3 swims in Antarctica and that was enough for me. It is an opportunity you should definitely take if given the chance. Not too many people can say they went swimming at the bottom of the world.
After conferring with Morten, we decided to change up the itinerary and head next to a location not too many people get to visit. The weather was perfect for a landing and we set sail over the lunch hour for Baily Head.
A Seal Showing Off
This location on the other side of Deception Island is not usually visited because any kind of rough sea makes landing there just about impossible. But just as we have experienced for the whole trip, we had ideal conditions weather-wise to allow a landing at this remarkable location. The beach here was open to the seas and the only way to land even in calm conditions was stern first. It was challenging and fun to do the landing. Upon getting our bearing on the beach we were greeted with a most amazing site. Thousands of Chinstrap penguins were marching in and out of the sea. Some were going to swim for food and others, full in the belly, returning - a highway of penguins coming and going.
Penguins As Far As You Can See
The expedition team marked a path for us and we hiked inland alongside the penguins to an absolutely giant penguin nesting colony. As far as the eye could see were penguins. The noise, the smell and the sights assaulted all of our senses. It was an amazing experience to stand in the middle of such a spectacle. Being our last landing, it was real treat.
Morten Our Expedtion Leader Enjoys His New Friend
It was a bittersweet departure as we left to go back to the ship knowing that soon we would be headed back to Frei Base for our trip home. Our final night on the boat was very special with a farewell cocktail party, a slide show of the week’s trip made by one of the expedition team and the most amazing dinner with a specially prepared dessert. It was an evening of toasts, reflections and then time to sort through all the images we hadcaptured.
The Antarctica 2014 Group Shot
February 2nd Back At Frei Base
As with everything else, the Antarctica XXI team handled the departure from the boat very smoothly. We were soon back on shore and headed back to the plane home. The incoming plane delivered another group for a new adventure. But the difference was that this was a tourist group whereas ours had been all photographers. A dedicated photography trip had allowed us to be in places and to do things based on light and location. On our one super long day, everyone from the ships crew to the expedition team went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure we had a truly amazing experience.
The two hour flight back to Punta Arenas was smooth and quite quiet - as most of us on the plane had a chance to unwind and take a much needed snooze for the first time in a week. A free day in Punta Arenas allowed us to regroup and visit the city.
The next and last day in Punta Arenas was a seminar classroom day. The instructors Michael, Bill and Kevin made a number of presentations on post processing work of the trips’ images. We concluded with our final group dinner hosted at a beautiful nearby hotel.
The following morning it was an early start and off to the airport for the trip to Santiago and for most of us onward to home.
This was an amazing trip. But, every trip I have made to Antarctica has been amazing in its own way. But there was something magical about this one. Maybe it was the exceptional group; maybe it was the absolutely amazing weather; maybe it was the great photography we had all experienced. In either case we could not have had the experience we did without a good trip organizer – Antarctica XXI. We certainly would not have accomplished the photography without the help of the expedition team led by Morten Joergensen. I have worked with Morten before and hope to work with him on our future trips. His team was the best! And, we could not have had the fun we had without the attendees of this workshop who came from all over the world. If there is one thing I have learned from all my travels it is that photography trumps the political problems of the world every day. Maybe if we gave all the leaders of the world cameras and put them on a trip like this they would figure a way to solve all the issues we face as a planet today.
Visiting Antarctica has a way of changing you. I don’t think anyone who has ever visited this amazing place would argue that fact. When friends ask about my favorite place to visit and I reply Antarctica, they look at me like I am strange. Maybe I am. There are no hotels or beaches. But there is however one of the last places on this planet largely untouched by man’s hand. It’s a place of incredible beauty and teeming wildlife. If this place is not on your bucket list, add it today. Next year on the second of two trips we will make, I will be getting married. I can’t think of anyplace more amazing to tie the knot with the most amazing woman in my life than Antarctica. If you can join us (we still have a few spots left) it would be great to have the chance to share this moment with you.
Kevin Raber, Publisher