The Penguin Post Office

A highlight of a trip to Antarctica is a visit to Port Lockroy, which is not only home to a colony of Gentoo penguins but also the headquarters for a British operation called the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. One of the small buildings at Port Lockroy has a gift shop and a post office, where you can mail postcards and have them bear an actual Antarctica postmark. It’s called the Penguin Post Office—and if you don’t believe me, just read its more than 100 reviews on TripAdvisor.

(PBS did a Nature special on the Penguin Post Office in 2015. You can watch a short, fun trailer for it here.)

We didn’t get to visit Port Lockroy, as it turns out—but we still got to mail postcards from there. Many of us had purchased postcards back in Ushuaia, and others bought them on the ship. The ship’s reception desk had the correct British Antarctic Territory stamps for sale (click on the image at left to see the stamps larger), and once we wrote the postcards and affixed the stamps, we returned them to the reception desk. Someone from the ship’s crew then took the postcards over to Port Lockroy for us on one of the ship’s Zodiac boats. We were told that the postcards first go to London, then on to their intended recipients—and will arrive in about two months.

Another attraction at the Penguin Post Office is that you can get your passport stamped there. Here again, we didn’t get to visit the post office, but we were told we’d get our passports stamped anyway. (Because of immigration formalities that I never fully understood, we had turned over our passports to the ship’s front desk at the beginning of the cruise and didn’t get them back until we disembarked.)

Some of us spent a little time speculating as to how, exactly, they were going to get all of our passports stamped at Port Lockroy. We had visions of them stuffing 200 travelers’ passports into a dry bag and taking them on a rubber Zodiac boat, powered only by an outboard motor, across icy Antarctic waters, in unpredictable weather, just to get a novelty stamp on each. What could possibly go wrong?

I never did find out, but I’m guessing that when they dropped off the postcards to be mailed, they borrowed the passport stamp and brought it back to the ship, where some unlucky crew member spent an hour stamping each and every passport. Whatever the case, when we got our passports back at the end of the trip, sure enough, one of the pages in the back had a new stamp on it: Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

Sometimes, Photos Don’t Do It Justice

One of the most memorable experiences on the Antarctica trip was one for which I have hardly any photos. Or, I should say, hardly any photos that really capture just how amazing the experience was.

We had visited Port Charcot and Danco Island that day and were supposed to be cruising toward Deception Island, our next day’s stop, when we encountered a pod of humpback whales. Earlier in the trip—actually at our very first briefing on the Le Boreál—the expedition director, Klemenz Pütz, had said, “If we encounter whales that seem playful, we may reduce our speed and stay with them awhile.” And that’s exactly what happened.

I have no idea how many whales we saw that evening. I originally thought it was maybe five to seven, while others put the estimate in the hundreds—so I’m probably not the one to ask. (In my defense, I just figured we were seeing the same five to seven over and over again.) Certainly “dozens” would be a safe estimate. Whatever the case, even the crew said they had never seen anything like it.

The passengers all crowded onto the deck at the bow of the ship and Read more

Let the Penguin Come to You

Chinstrap penguins at Half Moon Island. Photo by Stephen Porder.

Months ago, when I was Googling things like “Antarctica photography tips” and “how to photograph penguins,” I remember reading an interesting piece of advice: Let the penguin come to you. Penguins tend to be curious and unafraid, and sometimes if you sit still, one of them may come up close to you.

One of my colleagues on our just-completed Antarctic trip practiced a variant of that approach at Half Moon Island, and got some terrific images as a result. Stephen Porder was the lecturer accompanying the Brown University contingent (he’s a faculty member at Brown), and brought his 12-year-old daughter along on the trip. Toward the end of our visit to Half Moon Island—site of a large colony of chinstrap penguins—Stephen and his daughter decided to head down the hill from the penguin colony and just hang out for a while at the beach, where a few stray chinstraps were bathing. That’s where he got the photo of the chinstrap pair at the top of this page. Then he shot the sequence of six images below, showing a single chinstrap swimming in the shallow water, emerging from the water, and shaking itself off just a few feet away from him.

Really sweet images, and unlike any others I’ve seen from the trip. Nice work, Stephen. I’m jealous!

Antarctica Photography with an iPhone

Somewhere in Antarctica. iPhone photo by John Cannon.

In one of the photography lectures I gave onboard our ship to Antarctica, I showed some simple edits you can do to your smartphone photos—tweaks you can make right on your smartphone, with no need for a laptop and Photoshop and all that. You can crop, straighten crooked horizons, add contrast, improve the color saturation, and so on.

One Penn State passenger who took the instruction to heart in a big way was John Cannon. He was taking some pretty great photos with his iPhone to begin with, but he really became enamored of playing with them in the iPhone’s photo editor, and frequently would show me the results he was getting. And each time he did, I’d love the image so much that I’d ask him to Air Drop it to me immediately. (Not familiar with Air Drop? Remind me and I’ll do a post on that sometime.)

The photo at the top of this post is one of John’s, and so are the ones below. Read more

More Seabird Photos

After four days of getting in and out of Zodiacs for excursions along the Antarctic Peninsula, we’re back on the ship fulltime, cruising the Drake Passage. The way we spend our time has changed accordingly. Some people have used the days at sea to catch up on sleep, attend lectures, watch Antarctica-themed documentaries in the ship’s theatre, or make appointments at the ship’s spa.

For about three or four of the ship’s passengers—and I’m one of them—it’s a great opportunity to work on photographing birds in flight.

I still don’t fully understand why certain seabirds tend to follow ships, but I sure love it when they do. Yesterday alone I saw lots of cape petrels, a black-browed albatross or two, a white-chinned petrel, a smaller seabird called the Antarctic prion, and a wandering albatross. When I copied the images from my memory card onto the external hard drive I brought with me, I discovered I had shot 1,084 photos. Of birds. In one day.

When you’re photographing birds in flight, you do tend to shoot a lot of photos. You shoot in a burst (in the case of my Nikon D500, 10 frames per second), and once you can get the autofocus to lock onto the bird, you just keep shooting as long as you can keep the bird in your viewfinder. Then along comes another bird—or the same bird circles around and comes back—and you repeat the process.

The vast majority of the photos I got are very much deletable—the bird is out of focus, or it’s way overexposed, or it’s flying away from me (in other words, a butt shot), or one of its wings is cut off by the edge of the image. Quite a few images show nothing but ocean, with the bird long gone. But I did get some keepers, and you can see them below in slide-show format.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We Hit the Jackpot at Half Moon Island

The lousy weather of two days ago messed up our itinerary bigtime, but everything worked out great in the end. The original plan called for us to land at Whaler’s Bay on Deception Island on Friday morning, then head north to Half Moon Island to see the chinstrap penguins in the afternoon. From there we would head through the Antarctic Sound and visit a colony of Adélie penguins at Paulet Island on Saturday morning, in the afternoon visit Brown Bluff and make a true continental landing.

But the snowstorm and high winds on Friday stranded us at Deception Island for most of Friday. The captain had to cancel the Half Moon Island visit, and then had to cancel the Paulet Island visit, but we still held out hope we could at least visit Brown Bluff.

But then when we entered the Antarctic Sound yesterday morning (right around the time I was visiting the bridge), the winds kicked up ferociously. The expedition leader later showed us a visual of the Beaufort Scale and pointed to the worst possible category—hurricane force—and said that that’s what we experienced. Trees would have been flying, he said Read more

Views from the Bridge

The captain of Le Boreál has an “open bridge” policy, meaning that he welcomes passengers to come up and visit—as long as the crew isn’t dealing with tricky maneuvers, bad weather, or other situations that require their undivided attention. You just go up to the fifth deck and see whether the sign on the door is green or red, indicating whether it’s OK to come in.

We’ve been cruising all night, and after I got up this morning, I stopped up to take a look, and also to find out where we are. The captain showed me Read more

A Very Long Stay at Deception Island

We were told at the beginning of the Expedition to Antarctica that “flexibility” would be the word for the trip, and that’s proving to be especially true today. Our itinerary for today called for us to visit Deception Island in the morning, then sail about three hours north to Half Moon Island to see a colony of chinstrap penguins. (Most of what we’ve seen so far have been Gentoo penguins, which are definitely cute, but chinstrap penguins are flat-out adorable.) We accomplished the Deception Island part just fine, but that’s where things stalled out. A weather front came through with a lot more strength than expected, and we’ve been experiencing snow and strong winds—so strong that we’re stuck here until the storm passes.

At right is a shot (click on it to see it larger) of what the scene looked like out our dining-room window at lunchtime. The weather in Antarctica is so changeable. We’ve seen fog, rain, bitter cold, and bright sunny days where we were sweating like crazy in our ship-issued red parkas. But I think even the crew is surprised at today’s all-day snow in the middle of the Antarctic summer.

We did have a more or less successful landing at Deception Island this morning. The island is actually Read more

Our First Penguins

We’ve seen a lot on this trip so far: the city of Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego National Park at the bottom tip of Argentina, the birds flying near the ship on the Drake Passage. But for many of us, the part where things really start to get real is when we finally get to see penguins. And we are definitely seeing penguins.

Many of the passengers saw their first penguin three nights ago around midnight, as we sailed through the Melchior Strait on our way to our first Antarctic stop, Paradise Harbour. I missed this, as I was asleep in my cabin, but I’m told that a pod of orca whales escorted the ship for a while—and then the passengers saw a single chinstrap penguin, stranded on an ice floe. Apparently the orcas had chased it Read more

Welcome to Antarctica

Our sea journey that started in Ushuaia on Sunday night around 9 pm ended sometime in the middle of the night last night, when we pulled into Paradise Harbour on the Antarctic Peninsula. We had seen nothing but fog yesterday, so it was lovely to look out the window of my cabin just now and see this:

Today we’ll get to explore the place a bit. We’ll get on Zodiac boats this morning and go tooling around the harbor, and then after lunch we’ll visit Dorian Bay, where we go onshore. There’s a colony of Gentoo penguins there. Think I should take my camera?