Tag Archives: Antarctica

Deception Island, Antarctica.

Whaler's Bay, Deception Island, Antarctica.

Deception Island: Even the name sounds mysterious.

You can’t be a proper movie super villain without having a secret base and if I were ever to become a super villain Deception Island would be mine. It sounds like a place straight out of fiction and already you may be thinking of pirates or smugglers or some other ne’er-do-wells. But no, it is a real place and one that happens to be one of my most favourite places on Earth.

Whilst it is real, having been first discovered in 1820, it is hard to shake the thoughts of make believe, especially when you read more about it. First what we see as an island is really the top of an active underwater volcano with high cliffs on the shores making any attempt to anchor dangerous. At 12 kilometres in diameter you may even ignore it altogether but if you did you would miss Neptune’s Bellows, the only gap in the high cliff walls at a mere 230 metres across, created by a previous eruption, and leading to a secluded bay which, at 9km by 6km, occupies most of the inside of the island. Of the land that remains, over half is covered by glacial ice. Oh, and most of the entrance is filled by Ravn Rock that sits a mere 2.5 metres below the surface, waiting to wreak havoc on the hull of any passing ship. Yes, as a naturally fortified, evil-super-villian secret lair it will do very nicely indeed.

Whilst I could have happily spent two or three days just wandering around you’ll likely only get about 90 minutes and so thankfully it is one of those places where you do not have to work hard to get good compositions, especially if you like working with minimalism and negative space. Even colour seems optional in a landscape dominated by black volcanic rocks and white ice and snow.

You can read more about this wonderful island over on Wikipedia.

Posted in Frame by Frame Also tagged , , |

Keeping Warm in Antarctica: What and How Much to Take…

With the start of August comes the point of no return for those lucky enough to be heading for Antarctica this season. Most expedition operators require the final balance to be paid three months before the expedition and as the season opens in November, those who haven’t already paid the remaining balance will be making plans to do so now.

Once you’ve committed all that money at some point you’ll need to turn your mind to some of the other logistics such as how to travel between the international and domestic airports in Buenos Aires, differences in baggage allowances between different airlines and so on. However, at some point the same question is likely to crop up: Just what does a fashionable Antarctic-bound traveller wear this season?

Zodiac propellers break several times a season due to ice. When they do and you're on-board, being warm can be quite nice...

Zodiac propellers break several times a season due to ice. When they do and you’re on-board, being warm can be quite nice…

Keeping warm and dry is such an obvious requirement that I don’t see many people talking about it which can be a bit frustrating if you’ve just spent upwards of GBP £5000 on a trip and are not sure what or how much to prepare. Mention Antarctica and most people will reasonably imagine blizzards, breath that freezes as you exhale and the kind of cold that results in frostbite if skin is left exposed more than a few seconds. Which is all true, of course – just not when and where you’ll be going. First of all, expeditions only run from late Spring to late Summer when the sea ice surrounding the continent has melted sufficiently for an approach to be made. Second, even on the ‘Below the Antarctic Circle’ trips, you’re not really venturing that far onto the continent itself. In fact, look on a map of Antarctica and you may be forgiven for feeling a little let down. Don’t be – it’s stunning. In fact, were you to venture inland, without very specialist equipment and a lot of physical and mental expertise you really would end up a permanent resident. But, up on the Antarctic Peninsula, expect daily temperatures in the range of about -5C to +2C. This might be an inconvenient fact that you want to omit when telling friends of your Ranulph Fiennes-like exploration of Terra Incognita, but it does at least lend some reassurance as to not having to spend another vast sum of money on specialist clothing.

OK, your expedition leader is trained to ensure you don't join these unfortunate souls on Deception Island, but being cold can really ruin your experience...

Your expedition leader is trained to ensure you don’t join these unfortunate souls on Deception Island, but being cold can really ruin your experience…

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t prepare. I didn’t want to be so cold that I hated the thought of venturing off the ship. Indeed, one of the other travellers on the trip I made was so visibly cold on one Zodiac cruise that we had to return to the ship to let him off. That would have both annoyed and depressed me had I been him as for me, like many others travelling to Antarctica, it is a one-time journey and missing out on any of it would be awful.

I spent ages reading blogs and travel sites looking for clues on the ideal wardrobe to take. It was all a bit frustrating really as many sites talked about following the layered approach to clothing, but none really got specific. For example, using base layers rich in merino wool seemed a consistently popular suggestion, but with prices ranging from GBP £35 to GBP £150 per garment, it didn’t narrow down the options much. I could go ‘cheap’ and risk the garments being not warm enough, or I could go expensive’ at the risk of needing a second mortgage. What I needed was a nice summary of items that someone on a budget had used when in Antarctic, how they had used them and what they thought of their effectiveness. That would have helped me a lot.

With the benefit of hindsight, you don’t have to go mad; many people wear ski clothing – which is fundamentally designed for a cold weather climate – and they do just fine. Others, like myself, checked out reviews on Amazon on clothing and asked friends who have an outdoorsy life if they could recommend items based on experience. So, here is the type of article that would have helped me this time last year when beginning to look for clothing.

The Outer Layers

These are designed with one purpose; to keep the rain and wind off you. They will not keep you warm. That is important as most expedition operators will offer (sometimes free) a hire of a outer jacket and trousers. Take the offer, but remember you’ll still need the mid- and base layers.

  • Berghaus Gortex Jacket – I’ve had this jacket for almost twenty years and it’s been everywhere with me. It, and the equivalents from North Face and the like will be perfectly fine, but if you do not have one do not worry as the one offered by the expedition operator was perfectly fine and no one had any complaints of them.
  • Thinsulate Beanie Hat – invaluable for warmth when under the jacket hood, especially on the Zodiac journeys.
  • Outdoor Research Meteor Mitts – wonderful photographer gloves. In essence these are an outer layer and a mid layer in a set. As the name suggests, these are mitts as opposed to gloves which has the benefit of allowing your fingers to stay together for warmth. In situations where wind or rain could be an issue, such as the Zodiac journeys to and from landing sites, I’d keep the outer water- and windproof layer on. Other than this I’d take the outer layer off. The beauty of these mitts for photographers is that the finger and thumb sections of the fleece mid layer fold back revealing the top half of your digits and allowing you to operate fiddly camera settings. I also wore merino wool glove liners so my fingers were never totally exposed. This combination allowed me to keep shooting for hours with no discomfort. There’s even a pouch on the mitt for a chemical heat sachet such as the Little Hotties brand. I love these gloves, but had to buy them on eBay as, at the time, there were no UK distributors.
  • Insulated Gum Boots – provided by the expedition operator. Others had their own boots, and for those who went skiing , ski boots were an option. I just took the standard, free offering was toasty warm when combined with my mid and base layers.
  • Waterproof Salopettes – provided by the expedition operator. I did actually purchase a pair of waterproof trousers prior to the trip, but the provided ones were really quite good and so my pair never got used.

I would just re-iterate the need keeping your head warm as much as everything else. Woollen ski hats were worn by many and they were just fine. Again, the weather conditions will be similar to the average ski resort, just you’ll be travelling on the sea several times a day.


The Mid Layers

These add additional warmth control to the base layers and usually come with a zip to allow control over how much heat escapes. Mid layers are (usually) worn as a single item on each part of the body. If you’re worried about keeping warm, just double up on the base layers in the next section.

  • Berghaus Polartec 100 Fleece – Most fleeces you’ll find in this category are pretty much similar and so I bought one could zip into my outer layer effectively creating a dual-layer item. I never used it this way as I’d keep the fleece on when on-board. So, any decent fleece will do, just not one designed more for fashion than function.
  • Jeans – Yep, normal jeans. To be honest, so good were the base layers and the provided waterproof outer layer that when out-and-about off the ship I didn’t bother with these on excursions and simply wore two base layers and the salopettes and changed out of the salopettes into jeans upon my return to the ship.


The Base Layers

These are designed to provide basic warmth and to quickly wick sweat away from the body before it can cool down and cause problems. In truth I doubt you’ll be sweating much in Antarctica – aside from the coolness of the climate, you don’t really exert yourself too much.

  • 2 Endura BaaBaa Merino Base Layer – recommended by an mountain biking fanatic at work with the added attraction the these merino wool tops come in on the lower end of the price scale (around GBP £40 at the time). They did a fine job of keeping my upper body warm. In fairness I usually wore one of these Endura base layers, with the Tog 24 zipped top as an additional base layer. How may you wear will depend on how easily you feel the cold.
  • 2 Tog 24 Arctic Zip Neck Base Layer – Costing about GBP £10 each on Amazon and quite well rated I purchased these to wear when the merino wool tops needed to be washed. In the end I wore them on top just to add warmth. This way I was able to lie motionless for thirty minute or so on ice and snow with no discomfort. So that has to be a recommendation!
  • 2 Trekmates Merino Long Johns – Wore both pairs at once and never felt cold – sometimes cool maybe – but not cold.
  • 2 EDZ Merino Liner Gloves – These are thin gloves that work really well under bigger, bulkier gloves. For me they were bought to keep the chill off my fingers when photographing and coupled with the fold-back OR Meteor Mitts above they did a really good job.
  • 4 Sealskinz Thermal Liner Socks – I wore these merino wool socks under the walking socks below and did they keep the provided gumboots fitting comfortably, they kept me toasty.
  • 4 Kirkland Merino Wool Blend Walking Socks – At GBP £20 for four pairs these border on sounding too cheap to be any good – certainly compared to the prices I’ve seen in outdoor sporting goods stores. Obviously, a two week trip is not going to test their build quality, but from the warmth perspective, they did just fine.
  • Sub Zero Meraklon Thermal Neck Tube – This was much appreciated on some of the Zodiac cruises as it allowed me to my neck warm and added another layer below my beanie. I could have lived without this, but it wasn’t expensive and certainly didn’t make me uncomfortable.

The other issue I had was just how much clothing to take. The average Antarctic voyage is between 10 and 14 days and so I started with the notion of a change of clothes for each day. This idea very quickly disappeared when I adding up the cost. Luckily all the ships have an on-board laundry and so you can quite easily get items washed with a good turnaround time – on the Akademik Ioffe it was under a day, but larger vessels may take slightly longer.

The idea of taking less clothing will appear even more when you look into the practicalities of travelling down to Ushuaia – namely that the domestic airlines that carry you between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia (where you board the ship) officially has a 15Kg per person baggage allowance. They often waive that, but be prepared to have to pay extra.

Don't worry, you don't eat outside every night, but you simply cannot go to Antarctica and not have a BBQ...

Don’t worry, you don’t eat outside every night, but you simply cannot go to Antarctica and not have a BBQ…

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that one of the benefits of natural fibres such as merino wool is that they’re very good at avoiding odours and this, coupled with the fact that I didn’t sweat when out and about meant that I could wear the same layers two or three times with no issue whatsoever. With a typical voyage to Antarctica of 12 days, this option, coupled with the on-board laundry, means that you can get away with three outfits. If you are in the same situation that I was and have no suitable clothing, the thought of only having to buy three outfits really is appealing.

I do hope that the above helps someone looking to travel to Antarctica, or maybe the Arctic, and who is trying to work out what and how much clothing they need to take. If you have ski clothing already then that’ll be fine, but if you do not, the above is field-tested by me 🙂

PS: If you are going, when you are given the chance to send postcards home, send one to yourself. You’ll regret it if you don’t!

Posted in Hints and Tips, Travel, Trip Planning Also tagged , , , |

Looking After Your Camera Gear in Antarctica

Before travelling to Antarctica I spent countless hours researching on the Internet looking for advice on what camera kit and accessories would be useful. There’s a lot of advice out there; some good, some not so good and much that is contradictory. Even after all the research I still arrived a little apprehensive about how my gear would cope. So hopefully this article, written with the benefit of hindsight, will help anyone thinking of going to Antarctica or a similar region arrive prepared.


Harsh weather can cause photographic misery...

Harsh weather can cause photographic misery, so be prepared…


The Cold

Antarctica presents a number of challenges for photographic equipment. Of these the most obvious is perhaps the cold. Not that it is really that cold. On an average day out-and-about the temperature is likely going to be anywhere between -5C and +2C which is far warmer than people may have thought it would be. Checking manufacturer’s specifications is always worthwhile, and Canon rate the 5D MK2 body as having an operating temperature of 0C – 40C which means that in reality the conditions in Antarctica are not too far outside of this.

The problem is less to do with the cold and more to do with condensation. After several hours off the ship in the cold ambient air the camera body and lenses end up being the same temperature. And, much like taking a cold beer or bottle of wine from the fridge, as soon as you get back to the ship and the toasty warm interior, condensation is going to form pretty quickly. It is this that will be your real problem.

I tried a couple of ways to reduce the risk of condensation damage. First I had a number of large zip-loc bags that I purchased on eBay and a collection of those silica gel sachets you find in boxes containing electronic equipment. Before getting back on the zodiac, or when back on ship, but before going inside, I’d simply put the cameras in the bags, squeeze out as much air as possible and then seal them. The theory being that as the cameras warmed up, any condensation would form on the bags, not the camera and that the silica gel would cope with what air was still inside the bag.

After a few days, I largely abandoned this practice in favour of a simpler one. Not because it wasn’t working, but simply because it was such a pain. The simpler approach was to let the gear acclimatise in stages. The ship had a wet room where we put on the gumboots and lifejackets or wetsuits. Despite the room being unheated and the bulkhead door almost constantly open the surrounding warmth of the ship meant the room was never truly cold, and so represented a good halfway house between the cold of the outdoors and the warmth of the rest of the ship.

Additionally, most of the Antarctic expeditions aim to get you out-and-about twice a day. What I would do is after the morning trip, I’d simply leave the camera bag in the wet room unopened. The camera bag  still had silica gel sachets in it, just not the zip-loc bags. When the second trip started a couple of hours later, the camera kit was already pretty much acclimatised and when returning at the end of the day, I just left the camera bag in the wet room until after dinner – giving the contents a good couple of hours to warm up slowly. It does mean that you need patience, but I used the downtime to review the previous day’s shooting and keyword the shots.

This approach also meant that the camera was in a good state for the inevitable shooting when on deck – there’s always something to see and it was easy to grab the camera and go on deck.


The Dust

Antarctica is dusty. Surprisingly so in fact. Despite having the sensor on the Canon 1Ds3 fully cleaned just prior to the trip, it took less than a day for sensor dust to show up. The 1Ds3 seems very prone to sensor dust anyway but the conditions in Antarctica just meant it was a losing battle to keep it clean. The Canon 5D2 seemed to fare much better, but it too gained sensor dust over time. I tried to minimise the effects of dust in two ways: First I tried not to swap lenses. After all, if you don’t take the lens off then you’re far less likely to get dust inside the camera. Second, if I did have to swap lenses, then I turned the camera off first in an effort to reduce the static charge of the camera sensor.

I had the luxury of two camera bodies which meant I could have a wide angle lens on one body whilst a zoom lens on the other. This worked well and is something I would recommend, not least as, especially when in the zodiacs, events can happen so quickly that you do not have time to change lenses. However,  if you can’t hire or borrow a second body for the trip and so have no choice but to  swap lenses I do recommend turning the camera off and also making you that you can shield the camera from the wind, say inside a camera bag, when you do so. I would also strongly recommend a Giottos Rocket Air Blower or similar as dust WILL get in and on the mirror and sensor.  My rocket air blower earned it’s keep!


The Wet

Antarctica is, perhaps  unsurprising, wet. Depending when you travel it’ll likely snow at least once per day and you have at least one zodiac cruise around icebergs. Snow and sea-spray will become part of your camera’s daily routine and trying to avoid these will mean you’ll end up missing a lot of good opportunities. I’m not suggesting that you throw all caution and good sense to the wind, but a few basic extras are worth having  to hand.

I had a number of Op-Tech Rain Shields with me – essentially plastic bags that go over your camera and lens. For years I’ve kept one in the bag just in case and for Antarctica I purchased a few more. In the end I  never used them. It’s a good product, but really better used in a less hectic environment. A lot of what you see in Antarctica happens fast – or rather you’ll be moving fast. Getting your hands inside the protective covering is a bit of a faff and they would soon become annoying. I’ve also read that keeping you hands inside them for any length of time in a cold environment can cause condensation to form on the inside and actually creates the problem you’re trying to avoid. I cannot attest to that so  whether it is true or not I cannot say.  I’m not saying the Op-Tech are bad; they very good. It’s just that they are perhaps better suited for more static shoots such as landscape.


The 5D's weather sealing has been much maligned. Mine had no issues and even survived the attentions of a  curious Sheathbill. (Image courtesy of Daisy Gilardini).

The 5D’s weather sealing has been much maligned. Mine had no issues and even survived the attentions of a curious Sheathbill. (Image courtesy of Daisy Gilardini).


Instead I decided to go naked. The Canon 1-series has renowned weather sealing and all my lenses are from Canon’s L-series, also known for their whether sealing. But after the horror stories on the Internet about how many Canon 5D MK2 camera have died in Antarctica, I feared the worst for my 5D MK2 and sealed the battery compartment, memory card slot and lens mount with gaffer tape.  That stopped after a couple of days as water still got in and the tape simply appeared to be preventing it from leaving.  In the end I decided that I was being over cautious and that the report from 2009 detailing the high failure rate of the Canon 5D MK2 was making me paranoid. Both the 5D MK2 and the 1Ds MK3 ended up being left lying on the snow and ice for extended periods, used whilst snowing on a moving zodiac and the 5D MK2 even survived a wave, although I did dry it off pretty quickly. In short, both camera bodies survived intact, although I would strongly suggest that you follow the recommendation regarding temperature above: Damp and condensation can both cause mould inside the camera body and lens.

I also has a copious supply of Pec Pad lens wipes and Eclipse cleaning fluid. The lenses got cleaned after every trip once back in the wet room and I and kept a stash of wipes in the camera bag. I needed them too – snow on the front element of the lens and sea spray when out zodiac cruising were constant challenges.

I also recommend three or four decent-sized microfibre clothes. I picked up a pack of four 50cm square clothes off eBay or Amazon for under £10. These were very useful in wiping excess moisture off the camera before it had a chance to seep into any seals. Remember, too, that sea water is corrosive.

It’s probably also worth mentioning the UV filter at this point. Despite whether you think they are a good idea or not, I would strongly recommend that you use one in Antarctica. As mentioned you’ll spend a lot of time close to the sea and spray is going to play a big part in your life. Cleaning the front of your lens is going to also massage salt crystals into the coatings on the front of your expensive lens. The UV filter acts as a convenient barrier that can be replaced cheaply. One of the crew had just bought herself a nice Canon 70-200mm F4 lens but had no protective filter on it. I do wonder what it will look like after four months of constant exposure.


Hopefully the above tips will help take some of the guesswork out of how to look after photographic gear in Antarctic, or other similar, environments.  All the items mentioned can be purchased easily and cheaply and I would really recommend that you do so. You cannot help but get some wonderful shots – but only if the camera is clean and working!

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Not Quite Natural Selection. More Like Photographic Genocide…

I’ve just completed the six-month edit of the photographs from my trip to Antarctica and uploaded the selected images. It has been an interesting process; when I first started in photography I used to select my favourites and uploaded as soon as possible. These days I go through a more measured process. It works well for me, so I though that I would share it.

First I make the initial select pretty much on the spot as part of the end-of-day keywording. This selection usually forms the broad outline of the final selection and the obviously strong images get picked up here.

Another selection gets made when I return home – the Lightroom catalogue from my travel laptop gets merged with the catalogue on my desktop PC and I then take the opportunity to run through the images on a 30″, calibrated, monitor. Mostly the in-the-field select survives this second critique more-or-less unscathed – after all not too much time has passed between the two. Sometimes I drop a shot or two out, sometime add a couple.

After about two months comes the next select. It’s a good time to return to the work; enough time has passed that the memory is beginning to get hazy whilst still being able to remember enough of the context in which the shot was taken. I also take the chance to go through all the initially rejected shots as the distance of time allows me to be more impartial.

The final select is about six months in. At this point I go through everything and apply the acid test: would I pay to print this? If yes, it makes the cut, if not it’s deselected.


In the case of Antarctica, the above process works out as follows:

Total taken: approx 4400 shots.

Initial field select: approx. 140 shots.

Initial home select: approx. 180 shots.

Two month select: approx 210 shots.

Six month select: 99 shots.



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