At first, I was going to include the camera gear I used in this section, however, I realized it would make this post incredibly long and my intent in setting up this blog was not to cure insomnia 🙂
Going to Antarctica is an expensive venture, both in terms of financial cost and time spent planning your expedition. When we initially booked our passage with Quark Expeditions (and paid our deposit), a nice man from FEDEX showed up at our doorstep two days later with our welcome package. Impressive. In it included a lot of information that we could use in planning our trip – a map, an Antarctica primer with lots of information on the continent/wildlife and a booklet discussing the ship (Ocean Nova), Quark policies, Argentine airport/arrival information, boarding procedures, expedition clothing for sale and a few essential checklists.
Here are the three main categories (other than camera equipment) that were useful in our planning:
Antarctica has really a harsh climate (I know, I have an incredible grasp of the obvious). We were travelling in late Antarctic spring/early summer so the normal temperature was not too cold (-5 C), however, a Katabatic wind or a sudden storm could come out of no where, so we have to be prepared for the worst. On the ship we kept hearing, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” We were told when we went ashore to prepare ourselves as if we were going to be there for 24 hours. Fortunately, that never happened to us.
The key thing is to dress in layers and use clothing that wicks moisture away from your skin. Clothing made from cotton is not good in this regard (as I found out the hard way) and is not recommended. We purchased a lot of warm, thin, synthetic clothing at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada (a short drive from where we live) that was great.
I also found using “thin” clothing useful as (1) you will be wearing anywhere from 3-6 layers in total and (2) the parka you will be wearing on top of your clothing will make you look like a sibling of the Michelin man. Since you will travel from the ship to the shore via zodiac, it just makes it easier to get in/out of them if what you are wearing is not too bulky.
Here is a zodiac in action:
You will need things such as:
The Quark checklist was quite comprehensive… the key thing to note is that you might get wet going ashore so you want to make sure you have dry backups for essential items such as gloves, socks, etc., with you.
We were lent a pair of Wellington boots by Quark, so we did not have to bring those with us. They aren’t the most comfortable footwear, but when you have a wet landing (like most of ours) or you walk through penguin/seal poop, you’ll be really glad that you are wearing them. We were discouraged from wearing our own hiking boots ashore. (Aside: Fur seals and their poop are simply putrid and you do not want that scent in your suitcase going home. Your friends will never speak to you ever again if you do).
Quark also supplied us with a waterproof parka which we got to keep:
We were told on board the ship that we had to wear this, no matter how butt ugly we thought it might look. This was so that in the event of a storm ashore, we could be easily located and also, we would be well protected from the elements. This parka was well thought out… velcro and pockets everywhere, detachable hood, removable fleece liner and it was really warm. I have to say that now that I am back in Canada, I use it all of the time when I am outside in our cold Canadian winter.
You will be travelling to some of the most remote areas of the world, so if you have take prescription medication, bring enough (plus a little extra) for the entire voyage. The ship does have a doctor on board, but the clinic does not keep much in the way of medication there, so make sure you have your own.
Sea sickness is a major issue on these expeditions as you will travel through some of the roughest seas in the world (especially if the weather acts up). Phenergan (promethazine) was a prescription medication that was recommended to us by Quark. My doctor mentioned to me that is also the same medication you are often given in post-op if you have severe nausea (or as she put it, projectile vomitting). BTW, one contraindication of the medication is asthma, so take note. When you take this drug, you will be pretty much stoned out of your head and your eyes will dilate a lot (be careful in bright sunlight – wear sunglasses!).
We also took some Dramamine with us (also known as Gravol in Canada) although the ship’s doctor did tell us that it was pretty much useless when you are out in the open ocean. It actually helped me a bit in some rough seas, however, all I wanted to do was sleep when I took it.
The key thing to note about sea sickness is that for the medication to be effective, you have you must take it before you get sea sick. Taking it afterwards won’t help much.
As you know, most airlines have major restrictions on checked-in and carry on baggage. We were fortunate that from Toronto, Air Canada has a direct flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina (via Santiago, Chile) and we were allowed two checked-in bags weighing 23kg each. Hand baggage was limited to two pieces weighing 10kg each. That was pretty generous especially since we were flying
cattle economy class!
My main concern about baggage was with our connecting flights to Ushuaia, Argentina on Areolineas Argentinas – we were allowed one piece of checked luggage weighing 15kg and one carry on bag weighing 5kg – and anything in excess of that would be charged at a rate of $USD 12.00 per kg. Yikes! Obviously, they don’t cater to amateur or professional photographers as our camera bags usually weigh a ton (well not really, but mine are usually heavy).
My wife and I each purchased the lightest suitcase we could find (our old ones were pretty beaten up and needed replacing anyway) and managed to keep each of our checked bags just under 23kg so we were OK for the Air Canada portion of our trip. We figured if we were asked to pay excess baggage fees on Areolineas Argentinas, we would just suck it up as this was a once in a lifetime trip.
Camera Bags and Salt Water
Salt water and cameras do not go well together. Since we will be going ashore in zodiacs, we will often get sea spray on us (and the occasional wave will come into the zodiac as well). Some people just put raincovers on their photo backpacks… that is not a good idea as the salt water can still get into your bag through the zipper and other openings. You need to have a bag that is airtight.
They discouraged me from getting one for the following reasons:
It did the job of keeping their gear protected from the salt water, but back on the ship, they would have to wipe it down carefully with fresh water to stop salt forming on it when it dried. It could be washed over with fresh water, but then all the padding and covering material would remain wet for hours.
I suspect though, it could be an ideal bag if you never went near salt water and just encountered fresh water rivers, lakes, rain or snow.
My colleagues recommended that I purchase a lighter, more convenient bag and put it into a airtight/waterproof case. I listened to my colleagues’ suggestion and purchased a different backpack:
This is the ThinkTank Airport Ultralight V2.5 Backpack – I own a number of ThinkTank products and I believe they are some of the best camera bags on the market. They are extremely well made and designed by photographers for photographers. I first heard about this bag at Thom Hogan’s site. I own a few other photo backpacks, but they have a lot of padding contributing to their weight and bulk.
The Ultralight V2.5 has minimal padding, but just enough to protect your gear. It only weighs 1.1 kg (as opposed to over 3kg for my other backpacks) and will *easily* fit in any overhead compartment, even on small airplanes. As you will find out in my next post in this series, it holds all of my gear comfortably (plus my computer in the front pocket).
This bag is not waterproof, so I still needed to get an airtight bag to put my backpack into when we were going ashore.
I ended up getting a SealLine Boundary Pack (the 70 liter version) “wet” bag (again, on the recommendation of colleagues):
Placing my photo backpack in this had these advantages:
It was a bit cumbersome to sort out all of the straps, strings, etc., at first, however, this bag saved me from ruining thousands of dollars of expensive gear. There was plenty of room, so I could also keep an extra pair of socks, gloves, hats, fleece pants, etc., with me just in case I got wet and needed a dry item ashore.
If this bag got immersed in salt water, I could just put it in the shower, rinse it off with fresh water and let it dry. Since it is made mostly from rubber/plastic, it would dry very quickly. BTW, this case was placed in my checked-in bag (it is just over a kilo in weight and folds up nicely) from Toronto to Ushuaia, Argentina – and back.
Tomorrow I will discuss all of the camera equipment that I put into these bags.
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