Summer in Antarctica

Well, 2 weeks anyway.satellite-image-of-antarcticaThe email my friend Steve sent was short but tantalizing: Dave, interested in an all- expense paid trip to Antarctica?

My reply was even shorter: Um, YES!

So began the preparations for a 2-week expedition to our southernmost continent during the Christmas and New Year holidays. We were to travel on The World. The ship is what is known as a “private residential community at sea”. Rooms are owned by the residents, with many actually living year-round on board. Residents vote on where in the world to go, and include special expeditions to various points during the year. In this case, summer in Antarctica.

David, Steve and Reid

David, Steve and Reid

Steve was invited to be the photographic instruction aspect of the expedition team that included geologists, naturalists, historians and other experts in outdoor recreation. He was also able to include 2 assistants. So along with myself, he invited another fine photographer and instructor, Reid Elem, who he met at the Maine Media Workshops. Reid and I hit it off well. A good thing since our shared accommodations amounted to bunk beds, a desk, and a bathroom in a very narrow space – a far cry from the luxury just a couple of decks above us, but certainly serviceable. Sitting at the desk meant the path to the bunks was blocked. Two people really couldn’t be moving around at the same time. We didn’t plan on spending much time in quarters though, so it really didn’t matter. These are crew quarters. When the ship is on expedition, it is usually at full capacity, which means that crew members have to be doubled up to make room for the visiting expedition team members. We take their rooms for the duration. They get extra pay to vacate.P-50355a_uschria7What you won’t see or hear much about, is the ship itself. By contractual agreement, I am discouraged from showing much in the way of photos taken aboard the ship that include the ship. These folks value their privacy. In fact they claim ownership of any image where the ship appears, but don’t be surprised if you see a few included in this narrative.P-50314_iphone1So after 17 hours of flying time, from S.F. to Miami to Buenos Aires in Argentina, then Uschria, and another 14 hours or so sitting in airports, I arrived at my destination. The ship is an amazing piece of work. Luxury at it’s finest. If I was ever able to travel to Antarctica, I always envisioned it would be on a former Russian trawler or spy ship. This was not that.P-50320_uschria1 P-50324_uschria2For us, this was a working trip. I had only a vague idea about what was expected of us while onboard. I knew we were there to facilitate the residents and their guests with improving their photography. Because of the volatility of weather and ice conditions in Antarctica, the schedule was completely flexible. Not good for us because we never knew until the last moment, when we could schedule our classes and meetings.

Explaining to people how to use their cameras took up a surprisingly large amount of time. A fair number of folks bought new expensive cameras just before  departure and hadn’t spent much time testing or using them. Many people had never changed their cameras from the original factory settings, so lots of what we did was make recommendations for camera settings, and showing them where items were in the camera menus. Not always an easy task because every camera manufacturer does things differently.P-50321_iphone2We were to be available for advice and teachable moments on deck while traveling from stop to stop, be available inside for one-on-one sessions for advice and review, and conduct classes on various photography-related subjects (RAW processing, composition, storage and back-up strategies, etc). We were also charged with accompanying groups in the zodiacs for excursions both on shore and for wildlife viewing trips around the icebergs.

After getting onboard and settled, our work began. Steve had arranged to show some of his huge prints from his New Eye and Exquisite Earth projects in the gallery area of the ship. He had 2 framed prints shipped onboard and another 8 or so loose prints that we had to find a way to hang. That necessitated a trip into the town of Uschria for hardware (and a little sight-seeing).P-50334_iphone3 P-50334_uschria3 P-50342_Uschria4 P-50345_uschria5We were to leave later that evening, so we really didn’t get much of a chance to look around before having to be back onboard, but the town felt authentic in it’s grittiness. The had time to find the hardware we needed, look around a bit and stop in for a beer before heading back to the ship.P-50392_iphone5P-50392a_decption2Once underway, we got the two framed prints hung, consulted with the carpentry shop onboard, formed our plan for hanging the loose prints, then headed topside to see the last of the green landscape of Uschria fade off into the distance.

Leaving Uschria

Leaving Uschria

P-50367_headingout1 P-50369_headingout2 P-50379_headingout3A day later, about halfway to Antarctica, we spied our first iceberg. It took a few moments to comprehend what we were seeing. Low fog had descended over us during the night, but as we looked out now, it began to lift, and just off in the distance a huge shape emerged, then took a more definite form.P-50416_decption1It is difficult to describe the size of things in this environment. Everything is so extraordinarily immense. The iceberg above is sea ice – as opposed to a calved glacier iceberg. Easy to spot because of it’s flat top. I think our ship could have probably fit inside the ice cave formed in this one. Maybe we were larger than that. Low clouds and fog obscured most of the second day of the crossing, but on Day 3, we reached our first stop.

Deception IslandP-50433_decption4Deception Island is located just near the tip of the peninsula in the lower left corner of the image that begins this post. All of our travel destinations in Antarctica are located in and around the tip of this peninsula. Deception Island is part of the South Shetland Islands archipelago, with one of the safest harbors in Antarctica.P-50476_decption14 P-50471_decption11This island is actually the caldera of an active volcano, which seriously damaged local scientific stations in 1967 and 1969. The island previously held a whaling station –  evidence of which is still preserved onshore. Descriptions of this place all describe it as a slaughtering ground for whales and seals. Large factory ships would anchor in the bay, dumping their waste into the pristine waters. The bay itself was said to often turn red from the gore.

Whale oil holding tanks.

Whale oil holding tanks.

Whale bones

Whale bones

P-50450_decption8 P-50469_decption10

Whale boats

Whale boats

P-50509_decption20 It is now a tourist destination and scientific outpost, with Argentine and Spanish research bases. While various countries have asserted sovereignty, it is still administered under the Antarctic Treaty System

Shawn. Early researcher on Deception Island.

Shaun Norman. Early researcher on Deception Island.

We happened to have one of the researchers onboard who was there that day in 1967 when the volcano blew. One of his mates stepped outside for a smoke then came running back in screaming about “a bloody giant mushroom cloud” rising overhead, blocking out the sun. Total darkness in a place where in summer, the sun never sets. Fortunately for them all, a supply ship had just left and was able to return to evacuate them.P-50481_decption15
P-50455_decption9As it happened, it was also the worst weather we encountered on the trip. On the morning of our first landing, we had sub-freezing temperatures mixed with high winds blowing snow horizontally.  This was weather I kind of expected here. In fact, I’d worried this would be actually be the norm, but this was still a new kind of cold for me. Fortunately, in the caldera, the water was not so choppy and our zodiac landings went well.P-50473_decption13

Even the birds weren't particularly happy with the weather.

Even the birds weren’t particularly happy with the weather.

P-50505_decption19P-50492_decption18 On shore I saw the first of many penguins to come, both gentoo and chinstrap. Only just a few on the island, but it really began to sink in that I was actually here in Antarctica.P-50447_decption7 P-50482_decption16One of the advantages of being part of the Expedition Team was that I was allowed to stay on the island much longer than any of the residents. Only 100 visitors are allowed on any particular landing spot on the continent at any one time, and the policy is strictly enforced. So residents and guests could only spend a hour or so on land before going back to the ship so another group could land. I could stay longer.

photo by Stephen Johnson

Me toward the end of my stay on the island.                                                        photo by Stephen Johnson

In this case, it didn’t work out so well for me (above). My long flight days resulted in my having developed some congestion in my chest. The two days traveling to Deception saw the tightness improve a bit, but after about 4 hours on the island, my throat and chest got much worse. The freezing air and cold wind are apparently THE worst thing for compromised lungs. I returned to the ship early for a visit to the doctor who confirmed what I’d feared – Bronchitis. The doc told me he had to shut me down for 5 days. Meaning I could not step outside the ship – not even on deck if it was overly cold. It didn’t help that the motion sickness patch I wore caused some dreadful side effects like severe dry mouth and dizziness and hot flashes. I didn’t even need it, our crossing was so smooth, but if the patch isn’t applied before feeling the need, it’s too late.P-50441_decption6We discussed it for awhile, he checked my oxygen level, blood pressure, listened to my chest, then made me a bargain. Since we seemed to have caught it early on, if I took the antibiotics and stayed indoors for 2 days, he was willing to revisit my condition and perhaps, give me some freedom – if I respond well. Having little choice, I agreed. This was complete torture for me. Sure, I was warm and cozy, but I was stuck inside watching zodiac after zodiac take people to landing sites in Neko Harbor and Paradise Bay.

Next post: Neko Harbor and Paradise Bay (As seen from the ship).

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