Arctic Journey


In just a few days, I will be departing on a month-long journey that will take me into the Arctic Circle, along the west coast of Greenland, through the Northwest Passage, across the northern shores of Alaska, through the Bering Strait and ultimately to Nome, Alaska.  After being in Antarctica last year, it was inevitable that I would find my way to the northern Polar Regions.

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Google Satellite Image

This route was not really possible until recently because the Arctic Archipelago, through which we must pass, was choked year-round with sea ice.  But the steady rise in global temperatures has changed that situation as shown in this NASA video.   There are various routes through the Archipelago; our route will follow the track of the ill-fated John Franklin Expedition of 1846.  (See image below)  Anyone interested in the history of this epic search might check James P. Delgado’s definitive work, “Across the Top of the Word: The Quest for the Northwest Passage.”

Northwest Passage MAP Blog

Our Planned Route

(Note: The Mercator map projection above distorts the size of Greenland; it’s actual size equals about 28% of the continental USA)

Early exploration for a more direct route from Europe to the Orient began in the 16th Century, yet the first successful passage by boat was not achieved until 1906 and that trip, led by Roald Admundsen took 3 years.  It was another 36 years before the next successful effort, this time by Henry Larsen, and that also took three years.  In both cases, the expeditions were forced to spend the winter in the passage after being trapped by the sea ice.  The first commercial passenger ship to make it through was the M/S Explorer in 1984.  The Explorer’s journey was organized by Lars-Eric Lindblad, who had pioneered sea tourism in Antarctica on the same ship in 1969.

Aside from innumerable icebergs in various sizes and shapes, we will pass vast tundra plains, low lying bogs, sharply pitched arctic mountain ranges, and bituminous shale fires that have been burning for hundreds of years. We hope to capture images of all this as well as wildlife such as Narwhals, Beluga and Humpback whales, Polar Bears, Musk Oxen, Arctic Fox, and a variety of migrating birds.

As with last year’s Antarctica trip, the amount of photo gear one can take is limited by carry-on restrictions for the flight to the embarkation port (Kangerlussuak, Greenland).  The final leg has 5 kg limit (11 pounds) for carry-on and putting any of the essential items in checked baggage is never a good plan.  The duration of this trip is about 4 times longer (23 days from Kangerlussuak to Nome Alaska).  For one thing that means I’ll need more memory cards.  I also will be taking a tripod and a computer, two items that were not with me in Antarctica.  Those will be packed in my checked baggage along with a few other accessories.  Should they fail to make it to Kangerlussuak, it won’t be fatal.

It’s likely we will have little or no internet connectivity during this journey, so it may be a while before another post appears in this space or I am able to check on the posts of my fellow bloggers.  Until then…..

….Keep Shooting!

Antarctica–Lessons Learned

Last December I wrote a guest post “Up for Discussion- Travel Photography” for Leanne Cole, a talented photographer and writer in Australia.  Both she and I were planning major trips to completely different destinations—New York City and Antarctica—and we asked readers to offer their thoughts on what gear we should be taking.  The responses were numerous and full of good ideas.

After my Antarctica trip was completed, Leanne suggested a “Lessons Learned” post might be of interest.  I saw it as also as an opportunity to thank those who commented on the original article.   Their collective wisdom was of great help in my pre-trip research.  On the subject of pre-trip research I would also recommend a post by Susan Portnoy,  an exceptional travel photographer and writer based in New York City.

My Lessons Learned essay, along with a number of images from Antarctica, has just been posted on Leanne’s site so If you have an interest on how to prepare for a major photography trip, please check it out here.  Leanne’s blog has a wide readership so there is bound to be some interesting commentary from her followers.

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Early Morning, Antarctica

Journey to Antarctica – Part 4

First, a quick update on the Herndon ArtSpace Fine Art Photography Competition.  I was quite pleased on Saturday evening to receive a 3rd Place Award for my “Clearing Storm, Yosemite Valley” image (see my previous post here).  Maybe I should do this more often…or should I quit while I’m ahead?   Anyway, back to the saga of the White Continent……….

Antartica Map 03 Version 2

It seems that every Antarctica trip veteran we met before our departure had a different story about the weather.  Although we’ve been there only once, it’s pretty easy to see why.  Even when conditions are not extreme (i.e., enormous waves, huge storms), the weather is still volatile and often localized. This combination can make things very interesting. The following sequence of images on our passage through the Lemaire Channel is just one example.

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Lemaire Channel, Looking South at Sunrise

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Lemaire Channel, Looking East  (One Minute Later)

Antarctica 21Lemaire Channel (25 Minutes Later)

Lemaire Channel is about 7 miles long and a mile wide at its narrowest point. Because of the closeness of the sheltering mountains, it can be as smooth as a lake.  Icebergs, however, can block the passage especially earlier in the season.   Our destination was Petermann Island, home to another colony of Gentoo penguins and no iceberg congestion interfered (two images below).

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Gentoo Penguin Surveys His/Her Domain

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Gentoo Penguins on Petermann Island

Petermann Island was the southernmost point of our expedition, even though we would not have complained had the captain decided to break ranks and continue on. But such was not the case and that evening we retraced our route through the Lemaire Channel. On the positive side, we were treated not only to some very nice evening light by the setting sun but also the spectacle of a rising full moon (images below)

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Sunset, Antarctica

Antarctica 25Alpen Glow, Antarctica

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Moonrise, Antarctica

Next—Paradise Bay and Beyond

Journey to Antarctica – Part 3

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Route of Le Boreal, February 1-3

As the ship resumed its southward course, the favorable weather made it possible to navigate the most scenic route to our hoped-for first Zodiac landing.  Neumayer Channel is a 16-mile narrow twisting passage less than two miles wide and bounded on both sides by islands with steep glacial mountains rising as high as 6,000-7,000 feet.  The maze-like route is further complicated by the random appearance of icebergs that have broken away (calved) from the many glaciers on both sides.  A 500-foot ship is not as nimble as the little Zodiacs that would be zipping us around the ice floes. (This Google map lacks much detail, I don’t think the Street View folks have been here yet.)

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Humpback Whale Feeding by Lorraine Turci

On the way, a new group of feeding Humpback whales was spotted and the ship maneuvered for a closer look.  At this point I would like to introduce Lorraine Turci, the ship’s official photographer who used her 400mm telephoto to good effect.  (See image above.) She kindly gave me permission to use some of her images on my blog.  One of the more fascinating habit of whale and dolphins is their practice of creating a “curtain” of air bubbles when they are hunting.  The curtain is often used to corral their prey and we all got a rare opportunity to see this in action.  Lorraine’s image below was far better than mine and gives a great perspective on the complexity of these bubble curtains. Here she used a wide angle (24mm) lens which tells you that this happened right next to the ship. If you look carefully, you can see that a snow flurry came through at this moment.


Humpback Whale “Bubble Curtain” by Lorraine Turci

Shortly afterwards, we encountered a pod of 20 Type B Killer Whales, which hunt mostly seals.  Here again, Lorraine worked her magic with the long lens.  (Image below)

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Type B Killer Whales by Lorraine Turci

The skies seemed to be opening as we approached the Neumayer Channel (Image below). Prospects for a ride in the Zodiacs seemed good.

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Approaching Neumayer Channel

Port Lockroy, our destination, is a natural harbor that was used as a whaling station between 1911 and 1931.  During World War II the British established a military presence on a tiny island in the harbor, calling the activity Operation Tabarin.  Explanations vary as to the actual purpose, so feel free to launch your own Google investigation.  Designated a historic site, the base was renovated in 1996, and now serves as a post office, museum, and gift shop whose proceeds are used to fund the upkeep of the site and other historic sites in Antarctica.  Although the practice of sending postcards has become  uncommon these days, that word has not reached Port Lockroy.  It seemed nearly everyone on the ship wanted to send a few and we were no exception.  And never mind that delivery is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

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Zodiacs Heading for Port Lockroy

Conditions were perfect for our first Zodiac launch and we bundled up in our red polar coats and waterproof boots. The process of getting lots of people onto these lightweight boats was like a military operation, but a detailed description can wait for now.  We were here to see penguins and mail postcards and buy souvenirs and take pictures.

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Closer View of British Post Office, Museum, and Gift Shop

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My first shot from a Zodiac

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Le Boreal at Anchor in Harbor of Port Lockroy


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Gentoo Penguin and Chick by Lorraine Turci

Next—Petermann Island

Journey South-Part 2 (Antarctica)

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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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Wilhelmina Bay

(Technical DataNikon D800E with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, extended to 50mm; exposure 1/800th sec @ f/16, ISO 400)

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Wilhelmina Bay

(Technical DataNikon 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.

Next—Port Lockroy