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

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

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