As we boarded the ship that would take us to the White Continent, I recalled our months of planning and preparation, the helpful advice from others who had preceded us, the sage equipment and technical guidance from experienced photographers/bloggers, and the detailed packing lists from the travel company. (See for example, my guest post on Leanne Cole’s Blog on December 5, 2014.) But now, looking at the grey skies over the Beagle Channel, we knew that good images depended almost entirely on the region’s infamously volatile weather.
The Route South to Wilhelmina Bay
It takes two days on a cruise ship to cover the distance from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Zone, a voyage that often features very rough seas. But perhaps our luck was changing. The Drake Passage which had brought grief to so many, seemed not to care about us. Nevertheless, after nearly 48 hours of remarkably smooth sailing, we reached the passage between the South Shetland Islands and found unpromising conditions. A heavy fog obscured the channel and the islands were almost invisible. Not good, I thought, as my camera remained poised but inactive. The ship’s captain decided to bypass Deception Island, one of the advertised highlight spots for a Zodiac landing. As we traveled south, however, the fog began to lift and about three hours later the scene began to transform (see image below).
Shortly afterwards,the clouds descended again and snow flurries began to envelop the ship. But as I looked over the railing, the telltale sign of the explosive exhalations of humpback whales appeared, and the ship altered course to get closer (see image below).
Humpback Whale Alongside Ship
(Technical Data: Nikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, extended to 70mm; exposure 1/160th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)
The image above is uncropped, full frame. The whale was essentially next to the ship’s hull but was unconcerned by our presence. It became quickly apparent that the combination of low light and the ship’s motion would force some compromises on exposure choices. Normally I would have preferred a lower ISO and smaller aperture to ensure a sharp image. This would become a recurring theme in the journey.
Less than 4 hours after the encounter with the whales, we arrived in Wilhelmina Bay and were treated to a spectacular combination of clear air and dramatic clouds punctuated by segments of blue sky (see images below).
(Technical Data: Nikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, extended to 50mm; exposure 1/800th sec @ f/16, ISO 400)
(Technical Data: Nikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, extended to 24mm; exposure 1/640th sec @ f/16, ISO 400)
So far, so good. A smooth sail across the Drake Passage, it was still early on our first day, and at least a few decent images had already been captured. The next stop was Port Lockroy and, if the conditions permitted, our first Zodiac landing.