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.
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.
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.