Archive for January, 2011

Antarctica – 12/25 – Lemaire Channel and Booth Island

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Lemaire Channel

This was a pretty spectacular christmas day.  We woke up when the expedition leader announced on the loudspeaker that we had a pod of killer whales off our bow.  Better than waking up to an alarm clock…

Entering the Lemaire Channel

We then headed into the Lemaire Channel.  The captain had heard earlier reports that it was too packed with ice and we couldn’t make it through.  When we approached the Lemaire Channel another ship, the Ushuaia, had already turned around.  We hadn’t seen another ship until now and we all were pretty disappointed because it seemed like we couldn’t make it through.

The Ushuaia turning back from the Lemaire Channel

However, the captain was determined to get through and through some skillful maneuvering and crashing through even more ice…

Captain maneuvering through the Lemaire Channel

We did eventually make it through the Lemaire Channel. To bad for the guests on the Ushuaia.  This is one of the many reasons to choose the NatGeo Explorer over the other ships that travels to Antarctica.  This ship has proven it can go were others can not.

Lemaire Channel

The Lemaire Channel had a lot of wildlife.  I felt a little bad sometimes when a seal would be taking a nap on an iceberg but was in our way.  The captain would try to maneuver around the seal but sometimes it just wasn’t possible.  This seal eventually slid off the iceberg and went to find a quieter place to take a nap.

Seal trying to take a nap in the sun

Miki taking a picture of me taking the above picture.

Miki taking a picture of me taking a picture of the Lemaire Channel

After making it through the Lemaire Channel we made it to Booth Island.  We had the most spectacular light with the most dramatic cloud cover.  We had some amazing penguin and seal spottings while out on the Zodiacs.  I shot over a 1000 pictures in one afternoon.  Don’t worry… I wont post them all.

The wildlife taken from a zodiac near Booth Island.

Yawning Seal

The 3 Penguins

Headless Penguin

Jumping Penguins

and for the dramatic iceberg shots of the day.

Antarctic Iceberg Landscape

Antarctic Iceberg Landscape

When we got back to ship a couple of people were referring to our boat as the big lens zodiac.  The shortest lens on our zodiac was a 400mm.  Antarctica tends to bring a well travelled crowd and most of the photographers on board have already been on safari (some several times) which requires some big glass.  Antarctica is no different.  The bigger and faster lens you can afford to bring down the better.

Big lens boat

While I was on the zodiac cruise with the Ira Block (the NatGeo photographer on board) and the other big lens crew, Miki went on a hike to the top of Booth Island.

Penguin Highway

Hiking on Booth Island

I also took a few pictures with my infrared converted 30D when we were travelling back through the Lemaire Channel.  My infrared camera spent most of the time in the camera bag because I’ve had limited success with it.  Even with the stunning landscape of Antarctica, I’m still not satisfied with the results.  Maybe I’m doing something wrong but I think simple black and white photos are much more appealing.

Antarctica in Infrared

Antarctica in Infrared

The daily expedition report and a few more photos after the break.

(more…)

Antarctica – 12/24 – Deception Island (Polar Plunge) & Lindblad Cove

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Deception Island Crater

Early in the morning we arrived at Deception Island.  This island has a lot of history for the early explorers and also served as a whaling station for several of the early whaling operations.  All of that has stopped now and after some recent volcanic eruptions only 2 research stations are still left on the island.

It was a very flat and grey overcast day when we arrived.  There was no wildlife on the island.  Just a lot of grey volcanic ash and little bit of snow.  Obviously this doesn’t make for great photos but Miki was able to stop some interesting texture in the ash which I think makes an interesting photo.  This is a color photo.  It hasn’t been processed as a black and white photo.  Just shows how flat the light was that day.

Color landscape photo of Deception Island

There is still a lot of thermal activity from the volcano which does produce some “hot springs”.  Hot Springs is a bit of misnomer.  The first 3 cm of water very close to shore is very hot but beyond that its as cold as you would imagine the water in Antarctica would be.  None the less… we join some of our hearty travelers and went for a dip.

Taking the Polar Plunge

Miki enjoying the Antarctic "Hot Springs"

After we enjoyed the polar plunge we continued onto Lindblad Cove where we would spend Christmas eve.  On the way there we spotted a pod of humpback whales feeding on Krill.  This whale also got an frightened bird for desert.

Humpback Whale almost eating a bird

Humpback whales catching krill with bubbles

The whales use bubbles to gather the Krill together and the swim up through the ball of krill with their mouths open to scoop up as much krill is they can in one big gulp.

Humpback whale feeding on Krill

Dennis, our undersea specialist wanted to catch some Krill for us to show what they looked like.  He hopped into one of the Zodiacs to get some for us and had a close encounter with the humpbacks.  Dennis is a great guy and is always one of the highlights during the daily recap of the days events.  However, we were all secretly hoping the whales would have gotten even a little closer to cause some real action for him ;)

Catching Krill

He did catch some Krill for us and its surprising how small these things are.  Amazing to think that these tiny things are what massive humpback whales and a lot of other species live off of.

Krill

and as soon as the whales showed up… they were off to feed elsewhere.

Humpback Whale Tail

Next up was Lindblad Cove and this was one of the highlights of the trip.  The cove was full of us but that didn’t stop the captain.  We made our way through slowly and the views were spectacular.

Panoramic of Lindblad Cove

Having this kind of view from the balcony of our room on Christmas eve was reasons this was one of the highlights of the trip.

View from the NatGeo Explorer on Christmas Eve 2010

I never got tired of taking pictures of the ice.  Here are a few more of the cool ice picks from the day.

Lindblad Cove - Ice

Lindblad Cove - Ice

Lindblad Cove - Ice that looks like a whale tail

Lindblad Cove - Ice

Lindblad Cove - Ice

Daily Expedition Report and a few more pics after the break.

(more…)

Antarctica – 12/23 – Paulet Island & Joinville Island

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

1... 2... 3...

Today we made our way further into the Weddell sea to our morning destination of Paulet Island.  Paulet Island has an huge colony of Adelie penguins.  Over 100,000… penguins as far as the eye can see… and the smell to go with it.

Massive Colony of Adelie Penguins on Paulet Island

Paulet Island Panoramic Landscape

As with most days they split us up so some went on a Zodiac tour while the others went on land.  We went on the Zodiac tour first and got some great penguin shots.

It’s very hard to get a picture of a penguin jumping into the water…

Adelie penguins lining up to jump into the water

…but its darn near impossible to get one jumping out of the water.

Adelie penguin jumping out of the water onto an iceberg

Another one of the many nice touches that Lindblad does is the Hot Choco Zodiac.  We were out and about enjoying the scenery and taking pictures of penguins when our Zodiac driver asked if anyone wanted hot chocolate.  We turned around and saw this.  A very nice treat on a cold antarctic day.

Hot choco zodiac

The Brown Skua is a nasty little bird.  It is especially fond of young penguin chics and is really very skillful when working in pairs to catch one of the young chics.  One Skua usually distracts the parent while the other one goes in for the kill.  This Skua was just finishing off a penguin.

Skua eating a penguin

The penguins are obviously very wary of Skuas as you can see here.  He quickly ran away after seeing this guy even though the penguin was way to big for him to eat I don’t think he wanted to take any chances.

Penguin scared of Skua

One of my favorite birds is the Sheathbill.  This bird really does eat everything including invertebrates, dead seals, chics, eggs, and even feces.  The last of which has earned this bird the nickname of “shitbill”.

Sheathbill aka "shitbill"

We spotted a lot of different birds today.  Another beautiful bird is the Northern Giant Petrel.

Northern Giant Petrel

Wildlife photography isn’t the only reason to visit antarctica.  The landscapes are amazing.  You need to be careful not to get what people call “penguin tunnel vision”.  Take the time to look up and take in the surroundings.  Even put the camera down… at least for a minute because you don’t want to miss panos like this.

Weddell Sea Panoramic

But dont forget about the details.  Some of the most amazing shots can be found when you get up close.

Icicles

Below is the remains of the Nordenskjold Swedish Expedition from 1901 – 1904.  This is quite an amazing story.  You can get a brief  synopsis of their story on wikipedia.  It’s amazing that we are now able to travel to Antarctica without any of the hardship these explorers faced just 100 years ago.

Remains of the 1901-1904 Swedish Antarctic Expedition

After our visit to Paulet island we headed toward Joinville Island.  We had a choice to go ashore and do some hiking on Joinville island or go kayaking.  We choose kayaking.  It’s an amazing feeling to be kayaking so close to icebergs, penguins and seals and then to realize that you are actually in Antarctica.  A very peaceful afternoon.

Kayaking at Tay Head

After we finished kayaking at Tay Head we had to start heading back through the Antarctic sound and towards the western side of the Antarctica Peninsula.

On the way back we had another spotting of Orcas.

Pod of Killer Whales in the Weddell Sea

Orca bubbles

It’s hard to understand the scale of the things in Antarctica.  Even being there doesn’t really help you understand.  This tabular iceberg was probably taller than a 30 story building.  Even having the two Killer Whale fins in the foreground can’t show the true size of the iceberg.  The real amazing thing is the over 70% of the iceberg is still underwater.

Tabular Iceberg with Killer Whales

Daily Expedition Report by Karen Copeland and a few more pics after the break.

(more…)

Antarctica – 12/22 – Brown Bluff: Weddell Sea

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Panoramic photo from Brown Bluff

Everyday in Antarctica keeps getting better and better.  Penguins, icebergs and the most amazing sunset (at 11:30pm).

Up close with an Adelie

The light during our landing at Brown Bluff wasn’t the greatest for photographing penguins.  It was high in the sky with no cloud cover to soften it.  Just like portraits of people, penguins need nice soft light for a good portrait photo.  However, even a bad day of light in Antarctica is a better day of light anywhere else in the world.

Gentoo penguin and chic

Two Adelie penguin chics

Adelie penguin with some beady little eyes!

On most days we are treated to time on land as well as a zodiac ride.  Zodiac rides are some of the best photographic opportunities because its very easy to get eye level with wildlife hanging out on icebergs.  I took this series of shots from a zodiac and then merged them together into one photo to show action.

Adelie penguin jumping into the water

After we left Brown Bluff we continued into the Weddell Sea.  As Jen wrote in the daily expedition report below, not many ships go this far south because they can’t handle the ice and they are not fast enough to make the journey there worth while.

Reflection of the bow on pancake ice in front of the ship

We were in our cabin taking a nap when all of the sudden the entire ship shook like we just collided with something.  We quickly put our cold weather gear on, grabbed the camera and headed for the bow.  I guess our captain never watched Titanic and learned you are supposed to steer clear of icebergs.  He seemed to have fun crashing right into them.  This was going to be a common occurrence for the rest of the trip and eventually we just slept through it.

NatGeo Explorer crashing into icebergs

For us, it was definitely worth while to make the trip this far into the Weddell Sea because we saw a juvenile emperor penguin which are very hard to find out on the pack ice.

Emperor Penguin

The daily expedition report for 12/22 is by Jen Labrecque,

Brown Bluff in the Weddell Sea

The Weddell Sea, Antarctic Sound, and beyond. This morning our expedition continued in an area of the Antarctic Peninsula where many ships do not go. The eastern side of the peninsula often sees more days of sunshine and blue skies, but the sea ice and strong winds keep many ships from venturing to this side. The lure of tabular icebergs and the less explored is something many of us, however, cannot ignore, so enter the Weddell Sea we did.

The towering cliffs of Brown Bluff were the first view many had this morning. Adelie penguins and some gentoo penguins have colonized the narrow strip of cobble and beach before the steep cliffs begin to rise. Walking to the edge of the first colony of Adelie penguins, many were thrilled to see that most adults sitting in a nest had a small chick sitting underneath them. While we watched and waited patiently, the adult would eventually stand up and adjust themselves, allowing a glimpse of the small new bird keeping warm under them.

The special and rare snow petrel soared above our heads, for this is a place they like to nest. The stunning white bird is the most southerly breeding bird in the world. They tend to stay near areas of pack ice, so the chance to see so many around was exciting. The cape petrels were in abundance as well. Large flocks of them gathered in a few areas around the landing. They were feeding in groups, looking for fish, squid and the ever-popular krill.

A scenic route back to the ship brought views of deep blue icebergs, tunnels passing through them, penguins perched on top and even some collapsing and rolling. It was good preparation for the afternoon spent cruising through the icebergs and sea ice as we headed deeper into the Weddell Sea. The ship crashed its way through the ice of the far south; it rocked and shook and people delighted in hanging over the bow and watching ice floes fracture and crack into pieces. The colossal tabular icebergs could be seen in all directions as well, with sides and a top so straight that they seemed man-made.

An evening spent cruising through the ice of the Weddell Sea—who would have ever imagined they would spend such a glorious, sunlit evening doing such a thing?
by Jen Labrecque

And the night was finished off by an amazing sunset at 11:30 pm.

Sunset in the Weddell Sea

and a few more from the day.

Antarctica – 12/21 – Aitcho Island & Half Moon Island: South Shetland Islands

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Gentoo penguin nests

Our first day in Antarctica and for Miki and I it was the 6th continent we’ve been to (we still haven’t been to Europe).  The first island we went to was Aitcho which had a large colony of Gentoo penguins.  To our surprise, Aitcho island was very green.  This was the last piece of green land we would see for the rest of the trip.

Gentoo penguin going for a run

We then travelled from Aitcho Island to Half Moon island we had our first humpback whale sightings.

Humpback whale tale

Pano from one side of Half Moon island.

Pano from the other side of Half Moon Island

Here is the Daily expedition report by Justin Hofman

With winds pushing us from behind all night and a calm sea state to boot, the National Geographic Explorer made fantastic time crossing the Drake Passage. As we rubbed the sleep from our eyes this morning, the ship’s crew brought us within sight of land for the first time since leaving South America. Rising like a dragon’s back from a tempestuous sea, the South Shetland Islands were our first landfall on this Antarctic voyage.
Named after the British Admiralty Hydrographic Office, Aitcho Island is the phonetic interpretation of ‘H.O.’ Aitcho Island was virtually snow-free this morning, making for easy passage as we walked amongst chinstrap and gentoo penguin breeding colonies. Having the freedom to stop and sit amongst these wild animals, we being to appreciate their daily struggles. We watched the chinstrap penguins work themselves up into a musical frenzy, heads held high and rolling from side to side, wings rhythmically flapping at a slow pace, their display a high-pitched chirp/scream. The gentoos with their chests puffed up to capacity, pulsing with exuberant exhalations, followed by quick, wheezy inhalations, all of it resonating with a nasally timbre. Whether it was clean penguins returning from sea with crops full of food or the dirty penguins defending their eggs and chicks from marauding brown skuas, all the animals here had a job to do: Ensure the survival of my genes by raising a chick. Good luck pied friends.
To be denied a glimpse of the sun on the summer solstice sounds like a cruel joke. Luckily for us, the weather around the South Shetland Islands broke open and cast beautiful light onto several rather relaxed humpback whales. The combination of clear skies and stark white pectoral flippers meant that we could watch the whales beneath the surface. Steadily moving along and traveling just beneath the surface, our first whale encounter was a beautiful one. Eventually we left our sea-bound brethren and were greeted with fantastic light upon the glaciers surrounding Half Moon Island, the sight of our afternoon’s activities. We watched Weddell seals lazily rolling in freezing cold water or dozing right on the snow itself. Chinstrap penguins slid by like self-propelled toboggans on their downhill commute to the sea. As the clouds once again began to fall into rank and the sun was shut out into a global diffuse light, we steadily, yet reluctantly returned to our ship. By now our bodies are telling us to seek out rest, our heads are buzzing with enthusiasm and our stomachs are demanding satisfaction. Tonight we head north, then east for the Weddell Sea, what we will encounter no one knows for sure. I do know this: there will be penguins and they will be working hard.

by Justin Hofman

Some more of our favorite pics from Aitcho and Half Moon Island.

Antarctica – 12/20 – Northern Drake Passage

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Wandering Albatross

We woke up after our first night on the NatGeo Explorer in the notorious Drake Passage.  Luckily, the weather cooperated with us on our way down to Antarctica and it was pretty smooth sailing.

One of the many nice touches the staff does is publish daily expedition reports online.  I’m pretty bad at taking notes during a trip to document what we saw and where we went unless it pertains to a particular photograph.  Having the staff create daily expedition reports helps with this.  Just one of the many small things they do to create a wonderful trip.  Here is what one of the naturalist, Peter Puleston wrote for 12/20.

At Sea in the Drake Passage

In the failing light of day last evening as we sailed easily southeastward down the calm waters of the Beagle Channel the large hazy moon rose over Tierra del Fuego. Many days will pass before we return to the verdant valleys between the snow-capped peaks of the southern Andes Mountains.

It was almost midnight before we began to feel the gentle rise and fall of the great Southern Ocean beneath the hull of our stout ship. By breakfast time we were over a hundred and fifty miles south of fabled Cape Horn and well into our adventure of a lifetime. A light breeze and bright sun drew us out on deck and up to the bridge to admire the grace and beauty of our many avian escorts. Magnificent wandering albatross sailed effortlessly around our ship gliding on fixed wings that often measure over ten feet from tip-to-tip. Many of the wanderer’s smaller pelagic relatives including petrels, prions and other albatrosses completed our windborne entourage.

By mid-afternoon one only had to venture out on deck for a moment to realize we had passed into another ecological zone. We had reached the cold Antarctic surface water and the air temperature dropped down to just a degree or two above freezing. We began preparations for tomorrow’s arrival in the South Shetland Islands. Any gear we were planning to wear or carry ashore such as boots and backpacks were put through a decontamination process that removed hitchhiking seeds and any traces of foreign soil attached to our footwear. Later from our photography experts we learned how best to take advantage of our cameras. And from our Oceanites researchers we learned about the important work of the Antarctic Site Inventory.

Finally we were introduced to the ship’s officers and invited to our Captain’s welcome cocktail and dinner party. Then we were off to our beds filled with anticipation of our first trip ashore tomorrow to stand among the penguins.
by Peter Puleston

Karen Copeland talking about seabirds

We also had a talk by Karen Copeland about seabirds.  I spent a lot of time on the Bridge watching for wildlife, taking with the staff, taking photos, and she was almost always up there watching for wildlife as well.  She has a very interesting background and is extremely knowledgable naturalist that has an obvious passion for what she does.  The best thing was… this passion was not out of the ordinary for the staff of the NatGeo explorer… they all had the same passion for nature.

There wasn’t much else to do today except watch for sea birds and excersise.

Watching for seabirds

Running a marathon in the Drake Passage

Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Explorer

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

National Geographic Explorer (it''s a pretty big ship but the scenery in Antarctica makes it look insignificant)

The ship we took down to Antarctica was the National Geographic Explorer.  It’s a purpose built ship to handle travelling in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.  It only carries about 130 guests which is very important in Antartica because the Antarctic treaty only allows 100 people per ship on the continent at one time.

National Geographic Explorer crashing into waves in the the Drake passage

It has ice reinforced hulls (that the Captain loves to use to break through ice) and stabilizers (which we were very grateful for in the Drake passage).

Kayaks and Zodiacs on the National Geographic Explorer

It has kayaks and zodiacs to use for landings and an ROV they use to take under water video.  They have great common areas which we really only used during the Drake passage… except for the Lounge which was used daily for briefings.  When we were on the antarctic peninsula there was really only time to eat, sleep, go on excursions and listen to the talks by the guest speakers.  The two key speakers were the adventurer and mountaineer Peter Hillary and National Geographic Photographer Ira Block but there were also many naturalists on board there were experts in their own right.  I’ll do a post more about them later.

Here are a few more pictures from around the ship.

View of the Beagle Channel from our balcony as we left Ushuaia.

View of the Beagle Channel from the NatGeo Explorer as we left Ushuaia

Ushuaia, Argentina – the southern most city in the world

Monday, January 17th, 2011

B&W Panoramic of Ushuaia

After our 4 hour charter flight from Santiago we arrived in Ushuaia.  They had a short city tour and harbor cruise planned for us which was a nice little side trip while the National Geographic Explorer was being cleaned up from its previous trip.

Clelia 2

We saw the Clelia 2 at the pier.  This was the ship that was disabled in high seas a few weeks earlier.  Check out the video in my previous blog post.  Supposedly they are only a few weeks away from putting it back into service but I would never be a passenger on that ship.  There is just no comparison on the sea worthiness of the Clelia 2 vs the National Geographic Explorer.

219-foot yacht, Archimedes

I also saw another amazing yacht docked next to our ship.  It was the 219 foot Archimedes.  After a quick google search I found out it is owned by James Simons, the founder of Renaissance, one of the largest hedge funds in the world.  It was also there when we came back from Antarctica but there was a lot of activity getting it stocked up with food and other supplies.  Maybe Simons was on his way down…

Here is the boat we boarded for the harbor cruise.

Ushuaia harbor cruise

and some of the pics we got from the harbor cruise around Ushuaia.

B&W lighthouse landscape

A whole lot of birds that have a name I can't remember

Seals and birds

duck!!!

Grand Hyatt Santiago

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Grand Hyatt Santiago. Lobby.

After one of the longest door to door flights we’ve ever taken (14 hours Hong Kong to Toronto + 4 hour layover + 11 hours Toronto to Santiago) we finally arrived at the Grand Hyatt Santiago to meet up with the rest of the group. I don’t normally stay in Grand Hyatt hotels because I’m pretty loyal to Starwood group.  However, I didn’t have much choice this time because this hotel was part of the tour and was the meeting point for everyone to gather before took a charter flight to Ushuaia, Argentina to board the National Geographic Explorer for our expedition to Antarctica.

The pool was one of the best parts of the hotel… too bad it was freezing cold. The polar plunge we took in Antarctica was warmer :)

Overall, it was a good hotel for a one night stopover. Here are some of the pics of the hotel.

Grand Hyatt Santiago. Exterior.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.

Grand Hyatt, Santiago Chile. Interior shot.

A few pics from Antarctica

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

I’m still in the process of going through the over 12,000 photos I took on our trip to Antarctica.  I’ll post more of them along with a trip report later.  Until then, here are a few of my favorites so far.

Panoramic HDR of Antartica Iceberg

B&W Antartica Landscape of Pancake Ice

B&W Antarctica Landscape of Adelie Penguins

Adelie Penguin diving into the water

Adelie penguins lining up to take a dip

Bird almost eaten by a humpback whale

Antartica Panoramic Landscape

Antarctica Landscape in the Lemaire Channel

A polite Weddell Seal... covering its mouth while it yawns

Gentoo penguin walking on water

B&W Antartica Iceberg Landscape with Kayakers

Dirty Gentoo penguin up close and personal at Port Lockeroy