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?

A Few Birds from the Drake Passage

We’re at sea on the Drake Passage, which has been relatively calm—a good thing, because the Drake is legendary for its rough seas. It takes about two days to get from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, and while there’s plenty to do on board—attend lectures, chat with fellow passengers, eat the terrific food—there’s not a lot to photograph.

But we do go through areas from time to time where you can see seabirds going about their lives not far from the ship. Yesterday there was a lot of bird activity, and I had a lot of fun hanging out on the deck trying to photograph them. I thought I’d share a few images with you.

First, a bird we saw not on the Drake Passage but back in the harbor at Ushuaia: a kelp gull.

I’m told we may see kelp gulls again in Antarctica.

Perhaps the most common bird we were seeing Read more

More from Buenos Aires

This morning, while the majority of the passengers were still in the air en route to Buenos Aires, I took a cab over to Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve and spent several hours strolling with my camera. The reserve has an interesting history—it had been a dumping ground for construction debris, and then nature decided to take over, and now it’s an amazing green space in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers.

I saw a lot of birds I couldn’t identify, but was lucky to encounter a couple of guides who looked at the images on the back of my camera and told me what they were. I haven’t had a chance to sort out the info they gave me; maybe I’ll post more about that another time. The coolest bird I was able to photograph was the one I’ve posted at right—I knew it had to be a bird of prey, but that’s about it. The guides told me it’s a chimango caracara. I did a Google Images search and am not convinced, but I’m sure they know their birds—especially the local ones—a heckuva lot better than I do.

By the time I got back to the hotel, the passengers on the trip were starting to arrive in large numbers. The scene in the hotel lobby Read more

We’re Gathering in Buenos Aires

The passengers on “Expedition to Antarctica”—about 200 of us altogether—are beginning to arrive in Buenos Aires, the starting point for our adventure. The official arrival date isn’t until tomorrow, but some passengers (including me) opted to get here a day early, and I suspect a few moved up their departure in order to avoid the winter storm that’s hammering the East Coast.

(The weather here in Buenos Aires is a decided contrast to what much of the U.S. is experiencing right now, as evidenced by the AccuWeather forecast for today. Don’t hate us.)

Getting to Buenos Aires typically involves an overnight flight from the U.S. For me, the trip started in State College on Wednesday with flights to Philadelphia and then Miami, and then a flight that left Miami at 10:45 pm and arrived in Buenos Aires about nine hours later.

Here’s an iPhone photo I took out the plane window as we climbed out of Philadelphia yesterday afternoon; it was the ice in the water that caught my eye. The guy in the seat next to me Read more

Kim Yuhas Gets Us in the Antarctic Mood

In looking for Antarctica images to use in my onboard photography lectures, I poked around on Flickr and elsewhere, and I also thought about friends who’ve been to the Antarctic and who might give me permission to use some of their photos. One such friend is Kim Yuhas, a Penn State grad who’s now an attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission and who went to Antarctica in November 2015. Her Facebook album from the trip is loaded with terrific images. In addition to using a bunch of her photos to illustrate points in my PowerPoint onboard, I also thought I’d share some with you here.

Kim Yuhas in the Antarctic, November 2015.

What’s especially cool for me is that Kim was an intern at The Penn Stater at the time I was getting ready to host the Alumni Association’s 2002 Antarctic trip—and, though I didn’t know it at the time, my trip planted a seed with her.

I learned this when I complimented her on her Facebook photo album back in 2015. She responded: “I have been meaning to tell you that it was YOUR trip that piqued my fascination with the continent. I remember thinking, Wow, you can go there?! I’ve always wanted to say THANK YOU for the inspiration! It was a longtime obsession and dream come true to finally be able to make it happen.”

The other day I asked Kim to tell me how the trip finally came about. It turns out Read more

Antarctica Dreaming

I spent a little time yesterday looking in detail at where, exactly, in Antarctica we’ll be going. I looked at the itinerary and did a little Googling about each of the places we’ll visit. Then this morning I got out the Antarctic Explorer map that our editorial assistant at the magazine, Barb Fries, got me for Christmas and tried to plot our path. I’ve got it all figured out! So much so that I’m sure the captain won’t mind letting me steer the ship.

We really don’t go deep into Antarctica—we spend all of our time around the Antarctic Peninsula, a tendril-like slice of land and islands that extends about 800 miles north from the continent. Most of our stops are on islands; only once, I think, do we actually set foot on the mainland.

Below is a section of my Antarctic Explorer map that zooms in on our first few stops (I’ve underlined them in red):

At Port Lockroy, our first stop, we should be able to see the skeleton of a blue whale, as well as Gentoo penguins and blue-eyed shags (the latter being a bird I took for granted on my last trip, but do a Google Images search and you’ll see just how beautiful they are). I think this is also where Read more

Of Tango Dancers and Leopard Seals

I drove to Pittsburgh yesterday for the family Christmas celebration (a matinee of Star Wars followed by dinner at Bravo, then present-opening this morning), and drove back this afternoon. For entertainment on the drive, I listened to two different podcasts that touched on two very different aspects of the upcoming Antarctica trip.

A travel podcast that I consistently find useful is Chris Christensen’s Amateur Traveler Podcast, and a few months back I had downloaded a 2013 episode on Buenos Aires, the city where our trip starts. I listened to that one on the drive yesterday afternoon, and learned quite a bit:

—I learned that the Monserrat neighborhood—where our hotel happens to be—is Buenos Aires’ oldest.

—I learned that residents of Buenos Aires are called porteños (Buenos Aires is a port city).

—I learned that there’s a fair bit of European influence, especially Italian influence, in Buenos Aires. So it now makes sense to me that Read more

The Countdown is On

In just a few days it’ll be Christmas, but less than 10 days after that, I’ll be jumping on a plane—OK, a series of planes—to Argentina, the starting point of the Penn State Alumni Association’s “Expedition to Antarctica.” I think I have the Christmas to-do list pretty much under control, but the Antarctic to-do list? Not so much.

Getting ready for any trip always seems to be a mixture of equal parts sweet anticipation and pure panic, doesn’t it? On the one hand, there’s a non-negotiable deadline—that plane out of State College is leaving with me or without me. And there’s so much to do between now and then: Round up my camera gear, run errands, pack, clean the house for the house-sitter, write my column for the next issue, back up and erase my camera memory cards, pay bills, find my passport, lose 20 pounds….

I’ve also given myself an extra set of to-do items, or, as a wise friend of mine calls it, self-inflicted stress: In addition to being host to the Penn State travelers, I’ve volunteered to be one of the lecturers on the ship. There are eight lecturers altogether, most of them people with Ph.D.s in fields like biology and geography and astrophysics, and then there’s little ol’ me, who’s going to talk about taking better pictures. I’m going to take the PowerPoint I’ve used in teaching “Travel Photography 101” in OLLI classes at Penn State, and rework it to be specific to Antarctica. In other words, “Here’s how you can take better photos on this very trip.” I’ll offer tips for photographing Read more

Dreaming of the Drake Passage

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Alumni Association’s Antarctica trip that I’ll be hosting in just over three weeks (!!!). In particular, I’ve got the Drake Passage on my mind.

Our trip, like most trips to Antarctica, is a cruise: We board a ship in Ushuaia, on the southern tip of Argentina, then go through the Beagle Channel and head south. As you can see from the screen grab I took from Google Maps, there’s pretty much nothing between the southern tip of South America and the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula—just 500 miles of open ocean, an area called the Drake Passage. It takes two days to cross the Drake Passage in each direction, and the potential for seasickness is legendary. Many people consider it the roughest ocean on the planet; one blogger called it “the least enjoyable part about a trip to Antarctica.”

But I’m actually excited about the Drake Passage. That’s because it’s also a great opportunity for bird photography. There are a number of seabirds down there that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the world. They tend to either follow or fly alongside the ship (I guess they’re trying to catch the ship’s updraft?), and as a result, they can get close enough for some good photography.

Cornell University’s “All About Birds” website has a good article on the birds of the Drake Passage, pointing out how hardy they have to be to spend their entire lives at sea, and how graceful they seem in the face of winds and waves that humans would have a tough time surviving.

I remember on the 2002 Antarctic trip spending a lot of time out on the deck, where you could always Read more

Where the Wildlife is Big and Close

There’s a saying in photography that “it’s not about the camera.” A good way to make a photographer wince is to admire one of their images and then ask, “What kind of camera did you use?” The joke is that it’s like asking a chef after a fabulous meal, “What kind of pots and pans did you use?”

And yet, when it comes to wildlife photography, there’s some truth in the notion that you do need decent equipment. An iPhone or a point-and-shoot does a great job in lots of situations—travel photography, landscapes, people, and so on—but it’s probably not going to be enough to capture a quality image of, say, a bear 300 yards away. So those of us who are passionate about nature photography tend to spend a lot of money on gear: a high-end DSLR camera body (or two), big heavy lenses, a tripod, a sturdy gimbal head to support the tripod, padded cases to carry everything in, and so on.

A blue-and-gold macaw at Bird Kingdom.

But investing in expensive gear is not for everyone. And when I give a presentation about wildlife photography onboard Le Boreal next January as part of the Penn State Alumni Association’s Antarctic cruise, I want to be able to offer useful advice for people who want to take good wildlife photos with the camera they happen to have.

So I’ve been thinking about compiling a list of places you can go where the wildlife is relatively (1) big and (2) close. Because that’s where you’ll have the best chance at good images, regardless of what you’re shooting with.

I’d welcome your suggestions in this regard. Here’s what I’ve got so far: Read more