Antarctica is the highest, coldest, driest, windiest and harshest place on the planet. If you get the chance to visit though, you will find it to be one of the most remarkable places you will ever experience. The landscape is surreal, glaciers are everywhere and the wildlife is abundant – it is simply a magical place.
This is a once in a lifetime trip for most people as it is both expensive and difficult to get to Antarctica. Having said that, I have been fortunate to visit twice. And – I plan to go again as soon as I fill up my piggy bank.
After my first trip to Antarctica, I wrote a 25 part series about our voyage. Given how much effort and money it takes to go there, you will need to make many preparations in advance as you will be traveling to one of the most remote places on the planet.
I was fortunate enough to find a lot of great information on the web and in print, however, it took some time to assemble all of it for use on my first trip. I have been receiving many emails over the past few weeks from people who plan to visit Antarctica later this year, so I decided to write about the preparations I made for both of my Antarctic journeys.
This is going to be long article and I hope the information contained will be of use to those of you who are about to embark on this amazing experience. BTW, if are traveling to the high Arctic, most of what I am about to write is also applicable.
When dealing with Antarctica tour operators, you get what you pay for. I was told this repeatedly when I was planning my first trip. Going to Antarctica, even on a budget, is very expensive once you add up all of the costs. There is the temptation of going with a company that is “cheaper” in an attempt to save some money, but there is a good chance you will “receive” less as a result. I chose Quark Expeditions (an American company) for my first voyage and Oceanwide Expeditions (a Dutch company) for the second, and overall, I was happy with both of them. I have spoken to other people who have used other tour companies and they were equally happy. The bottom line is that you need to do a little homework and research the company you plan to use. There is a lot of great information on the internet, complete with passenger reviews.
One thing to keep in mind– the smaller the ship, the better. One thing I did not know when I booked my first expedition is that no more than 100 passengers are allowed ashore at any time. If I, a paying passenger, had to “remain aboard” the ship in Antarctica because too many people were ashore, I would have been royally pissed off. The ships I sailed on had less than 100 passengers which meant everyone could go ashore if they wanted to. Make sure you find out how many passengers are on your vessel.
As I mentioned earlier, Antarctica has really a harsh climate. We were traveling 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 had to be prepared for the worst. On our 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. Silk or synthetic fabrics are best. I also found using “thin” clothing useful as:
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:
When you go ashore, try to have an extra set of gloves, scarf, socks and hat in your backpack as you may get wet in the zodiac – it is not much fun wandering around in Antarctica with wet clothing.
We were lent a pair of Wellington boots on board the ship, 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).
Here is a little tip which was very useful and you won’t read elsewhere – bring some rubber dish washing gloves with you and wear them over thin gloves when you are in the zodiac going to/from the shore. We frequently got wet in the zodiacs (sea spray, waves or rain) and having these rubber gloves meant I could keep all of my other gloves dry. When I arrived on shore, I took the rubber gloves off and placed them in my backpack until I got back into the zodiac.
Some tour operators such as Quark Expeditions 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.
You will be traveling 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 me. My family doctor mentioned that it is also the same medication you are often given in post-op if you have severe nausea (or as she put it, projectile vomiting). 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).
PLEASE CONSULT WITH YOUR MEDICAL DOCTOR ABOUT TAKING ANY SEA SICKNESS MEDICATION BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME.
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.
Many of our fellow passengers also used ginger tablets to combat sea sickness – and those people who used them, swore it worked well. Next time, I will definitely bring some along with me.
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 I found out the hard way.
Most Antarctic expeditions depart from Ushuaia, Argentina – at the southern tip of the country. Many 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 connecting flights to Ushuaia, Argentina on Areolineas Argentinas – I was 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).
I purchased the lightest suitcase I could find and managed to keep the weight of my checked bag just under 23kg so I was OK for the Air Canada portion of our trip. I figured if I wasasked to pay excess baggage fees on Areolineas Argentinas, I would just suck it up.
BTW, I did not have to pay excess baggage charges with Areolineas Argentinas, however, several other people that have flown with them were not as fortunate. It seems to be the luck of the draw whether or not you get charged or not if your baggage is overweight.
Salt water and cameras do not mix and you need to avoid it at all costs. You will ruin your camera gear if you don’t.
Since we traveled ashore in zodiacs, we would often get sea spray on us (and the occasional wave will come into the zodiac as well). Some people just put rain covers 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.
Other colleagues recommended that I purchase a lighter, more convenient photo backpack and put it into a airtight/waterproof case. I did this on both of my Antarctic voyages and it worked out really well for me – and I highly recommend Think Tank’s Airport Series of photo backpacks which I used:
I own a number of Think Tank 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.
Depending on the camera/computer gear you want to take to Antarctica, there are three different backpacks you can choose from:
These backpacks have minimal padding so they are light (1.3 kg or 3 lbs), not bulky and will fit in any storage space on all commercial aircraft. I have a full review of them on this website and you can read it by clicking here.
Since these backpacks are not waterproof, so you will still need to get an airtight bag to put your backpack into when going ashore. Even though some photo backpacks come with a “rain cover”, they will offer little protection if a salt water wave enters your zodiac when going to/from the ship. I know several people who have destroyed their camera gear that way.
I ended up getting a SealLine Boundary Pack (the 70 litre version) “dry” 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.
For those of you who have smaller camera bags, you can also purchase smaller dry bags to protect them from the sea water.
The above “dry” bag proved to be more useful than I thought. When camera gear used in cold temperatures is suddenly exposed to moist, warm environments (such as our cabin on the ship), condensation forms on outside and inside your equipment. That is not good… and you will also get some annoying spots on your camera sensor (which will show up in your images) which you must wet clean.
When returning to the ship, I would place the sealed dry bag in the shower to rinse it off in order to remove the external salt residue. I would then wait 60-90 minutes (or longer, depending on how cold it was outside). During this period, the exterior of the wet bag would dry off whilst the interior (the camera backpack and gear) had enough time to warm up in the airtight bag. Moisture does not enter an airtight dry bag when it is sealed and prevents condensation from forming on the interior. I would then take my camera backpack out of the dry bag and there was no condensation on my equipment.
Condensation problem solved. Residual salt gone.
A number of the expedition staff also commented on how practical my SealLine Boundary Pack was – which is quite the endorsement as they see many types of bags on these expeditions, so they know what works and what doesn’t.
Something else you might want to consider – keep a couple of silica gel packs in your camera bag. That way, if some condensation does get into your gear/bag, at least the gel pack will absorb some of it.
I also brought some large and small Ziploc bags with me. I put my small pocket camera inside a Ziploc bag, sealed it, then I placed it in my outside coat pocket. That way, if I did get splashed with water and my coat pocket was open, the camera and lens would stay nice and dry. Also, when we returned to the ship, I left the camera in the sealed Ziploc bag for an hour or so, let it warm up and then took it out. That way, I did not have to worry about condensation on/in the camera.
Think of a Ziploc as a miniature wet bag.
Some other photographers who did not have proper dry bags placed their lenses, bodies, etc., in Ziploc bags and then placed them in their photo backpacks. In the event that water got into their camera bag, at least their gear had some level of protection.
I also used a Hydrophobia 70-200 Rain Cover (shown below) – a specialized, soft, water resistant outer shell made for digital SLRs which accommodates pro-zoom (f/2.8 typically) lenses up to 200mm plus a teleconverter. In case it rained or snowed a lot, I wanted my camera and lens to stay dry. I also used it briefly in the zodiac when photographing birds while cruising in a sheltered bay.
The Hydrophobia turned out to be fantastic, but not everyone wants to spend $150+ for a rain cover, so a common trick is to use a clear plastic bag large enough to hold your camera and lens as a moisture guard. A large Ziploc bag works, but any clear plastic bag will do.
You cut two small holes in the end of the bag opposite the opening. Something like this:
You will then need to detach one end of your strap from the camera (you will re-attach it later). Place your camera in the bag, thread your camera strap through the holes you made in the bag and re-attach the strap to the camera. It should look something like this when you are finished.
It isn’t fancy, but it works reasonably well and it is cheap to implement (i.e. the cost of a plastic bag and 5 minutes of your time). Since the bag is clear and flexible, you can still operate the controls, see the rear LCD and look through the viewfinder, although the view will be a bit distorted. If the conditions are dry and the bag is not needed for protection, you can slide it up and out of the way (perhaps, behind your neck).
A number of people used this trick on our trip and I suspect it saved a lot of cameras from malfunctioning.
If you visit the island of South Georgia on your way to Antarctica, you will be in for a treat as it is unbelievably beautiful – plus there are millions of birds, penguins and seals.
We were told to pay close attention to the fur seals and maintain a minimum distance of 10m from them for our own safety.
Here is a warning for you: male fur seals can be dangerous.
The males are very territorial, have sharp teeth and can be quite aggressive. If they perceive you to be a threat to their territory, they will often “charge” you (even the young seals will do this). So, what do you do if a seal charges you?
DO NOT RUN AWAY – STAND YOUR GROUND.
You read that correctly. Do not run away. Fur seals can run up to 25 to 35km/h, catch up with you and bite you. You do not stand a chance trying to run from them wearing your Wellington boots. If a male seal does try to charge you, this is what you need to do:
If you follow these steps, you should be safe.
BTW, the above photo shows how close the male seals will get to you. Remember, stand your ground, make lots of noise and do not run away.
I have to admit that I was a scared at first when the male fur seals tried to charge me, however, after practising the above a few times, it was no longer an issue. I tried to avoid the seals altogether, but that was impossible as there were thousands of them everywhere. Fortunately, nobody on both trips got bitten. I had heard of some people being hurt in the past, but they were the ones that tried to run away or were too close to begin with.
As a photographer, my main focus (pardon the pun) of this voyage was photography. Having said that, this is what I think are the most important things to consider from a photography perspective:
I am reminded of a conversation on my first Antarctic voyage that I had during the final night on the ship. There were so many great things that we experienced during this trip: some things we did together as a group and some experiences were unique to a specific person. My friend seated next to me at the dinner table asked, “What are you going to tell everyone back home?“
I had no answer to his question. I didn’t even know where to begin. What could I say that would do this voyage justice? I knew that this trip would affect me somehow, but I had not imagined how profound the impact was going to be.
I had met interesting people on this trip, some of which I now call “friend.” I got to see some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. The wildlife actually interacted with me and they were genuinely interested in my being there. A couple penguins even wanted to play with this photographer, this human. I really felt that I was part of the environment and I stood in awe of nature and all that she had to offer. I saw and experienced things that I could never articulate properly to another human being.
As photographers, we often strive to improve our craft in order to take better photographs – both from an artistic and technical point of view. When I photograph a wedding or something in nature, I always try to improve upon what I did before. The best photographers are always trying to get that elusive, “perfect picture.”
Eloquent words or a beautiful picture can never fully communicate that which has truly impacted you, and perhaps, even touched your soul. Even though I had taken some lovely photographs, the best images from this voyage had been recorded in both my mind and in my heart.
A mentor of mine (a very talented photojournalist) once told me that, “There are no such things as perfect pictures, just perfect moments.”
My Antarctic trips were filled with many perfect moments. I now look back at my images and they remind me of those wonderful experiences that I had. That is ultimately why I create photographs: to remind me of those important, perfect moments.
We come across them everyday in our lives – and especially on a trip like this. Be fully present in what you witness and connect with your subject. Your eyes are not the only things that can see. Then, when you decide to “click” your shutter, create your image from that place within you.
In Sanskrit, there is a greeting I like: “Namaste.” I believe it means, “I honour the place within you where we are both one.” My camera is merely a tool in an artist’s hands. My best images, however, come from that place within me that has a genuine connection with my subject.
That is how you create the perfect picture.
I am truly grateful for the opportunities to have experienced this remarkable part of the world. It is not easy to get there nor is it inexpensive. But it was worth every cent and iota of energy expended on it – ten fold. For those of you who are about to visit Antarctica, you are in for one of the best experiences of your life.
I hope and pray that one day in the future, I can visit Antarctica again.
A big thank you to my little penguin friends. You have taught me a very valuable lesson in life. I will never forget you.
If you have any questions, please post them here and I will do my best to answer them.
I hope the above information helps in preparaing for your voyage to Antarctica. If you would like further information, here are some books that I found extremely useful:
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