The eye of the hurricane

It’s windy outside. Well, it’s more than just windy, it’s SUUUPER windy. In fact, our expedition leader just came over the loud speaker to announce that we are in type 2 hurricane conditions. I can literally hear the howl as the wind whips and scrapes past our ship. It’s amazing, really, that we can sit here safely in our heated little bubble (aka the National Geographic Explorer) sipping on hot chocolate and watch as the gale force winds rip by us at nearly 80 miles per hour. 100 years ago, we’d have had little chance of surviving these conditions in even the most modern of ships. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in just a century… Judging by the subtle grin on his face, I’d say our captain takes pleasure in the excitement of a little wind and wave action. I have to admit, I too enjoy the rough seas. It becomes much more of an adventure when it’s a struggle just to stand up straight, let alone try to walk through the halls without spilling my tasty hot chocolate when the boat is pitching in 20 foot waves. And what’s even more fun is riding the stationary bike during stormy passages – it’s like riding through a bumpy hillside, up and down, up and down, up and down, over and over and over again. But my favorite activity of all? This was something I discovered on my ship in Alaska and it still holds true. During the roughest, toughest, craziest of stormy days, I absolutely love jumping in the shower and holding on for dear life. It’s as close of an experience as I can imagine to being trapped inside a washing machine that’s tumbling down a mountain, but boy oh boy is it a fun time. There’s something strangely comforting about the hot water splashing around everywhere during those weightless moments when you feel as if you’re flying after the boat launches off a massive wave. It’s one of those feelings that words cannot describe (picture roller coaster in the heat of tropics during a rainstorm?) and you just have to experience for yourself. So for those of you who are planning any trips to sea, cross your fingers for at least one day of rough seas so you too can join the high octane adventure shower club!

 

Wandering albatross - the largest flying bird in the world. Graceful even in the windiest conditions

The sun fighting through the clouds

And old whaling ship on South Georgia Island

Waves battering against the side of our ship

Wind and waves - epic!

Chicks, chicks, chicks!

What a perfect time of year to be exploring Antarctica and South Georgia – the chicks are everywhere! Don’t get too excited now fellas… I’m talking about baby birdies! While some are more obvious than others, it can actually be quite a challenge pointing out a baby penguin nestled under its parent’s belly fold in a colony of thousands of penguins, but once you catch sight of that little guy, it will light up your world! They are just the cutest, cuddliest looking things on the face of the earth. Beware, once you see a penguin chick, you may be pulled out of the airport security line for illegally trying to smuggle one in your suitcase. You’ve been warned! Not only are there thousands of penguin chicks abound, but with a little luck (and a LOT more effort -- involving scampering through mud pits, weaving through angry seals, dodging giant petrels that will puke on you for getting too close to their nest, tripping over your clunky boots over an obstacle course of tall grasses while weaving through a slippery, dirty mountain slope to gain access to the tussock grass hillsides) one can also find baby albatross scattered around the island, another incredible sight.

Now…I may have a biased opinion here. These may have been the cutest chicks in the world simply because of the effort it took to get a close look at them (I was a sloppy mess by the time I made it to their nests, covered in mud and dirt and grime) but it was definitely a special experience for me. Not sure who was more curious in the other at first glance, me – this big brown muddy mess of a person staring at this chick I had hiked so arduously to get a peek at, or it – this cute cuddly white fluffball sitting all cozy and clean in its nest wondering what this beast was that stumbled upon it. Either way, we had  a great time getting to know each other over the next five minutes, as I stood there doing what I do best (taking photos) and it sat there doing what it does best (bobbing its head up and down opening its mouth waiting for me to regurgitate a big juicy meal of partially digested fish down its gullet).

And that’s a wrap for South Georgia! Next stop, the Falkland Islands!

 

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Land of the Kings

South Georgia has surpassed all my expectations. To be honest, one of the deciding factors in choosing this boat rather than others that simply explore Antarctica was because of the itinerary that included South Georgia. And trust me…it’s worth it. South Georgia is, by all means, the land of the kings. Several hundred thousand king penguins reside on the island, giving it the most densely populated king penguin colonies in the world. When we made our first landing, I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. The mass of penguins is so thick that once you reach the edge of the colony, you cannot even take another step forward. I can’t even begin to fathom how they scooch between each other to get to the sea and feed, that’s how smashed up against each other they are. But even more impressive is how this hodgepodge of penguins seems to stretch as far as they eye can see – the landscape is just covered with them!

King penguins are spectacular birds whose bright orange feathers make them some of the most beautiful and picturesque species we’ve seen so far. It’s been an absolute blast photographing them, although it’s been more challenging than I expected for a number of reasons. Firstly, coming from Antarctica where life is much less abundant, stepping on to South Georgia with a camera feels like stepping in to a war zone that’s been swept with chaos. There is no organization, no routine, no moment of calm. It’s an overload of sensations on every level – most notably the odor! As a photographer, it becomes a very difficult task to sort through the mass of information that’s in front of you and try to find balance and direction with your images. It requires a level of creativity that I have not yet in countered since I am often in situations where the ‘photographic moment’ is presented to me in a simple manner (ie a leopard in a tree, a bird searching for prey, or a beautiful landscape at sunset). I quickly learned that there was just so much going on, that I needed a vision of what I wanted before I would get any pleasing results, and it was this process that I fell in love with. I would sit for however long it took to realize this vision, camera down by my side, just watching the dynamics of the group in front of me. I would pick out the individuals with unique behavior, paying special attention to them, until I saw something that caught my eye. It was then that I would pick up the camera and wait for a similar behavior to occur. This was how I got the best results – willingness to put the camera down and study my surroundings, patience, and vigilance. And in my opinion, it paid off.

One last note about photographing penguins in large colonies – be prepared to get dirty. I spent the majority of my time crawling on the ground, literally sprawled full eagle most of the time. Knee/elbow pads would have saved me a lot of grief on this trip, but I find that the best pictures often come from eye level. And for those of us who tower over a two foot penguin, that means getting down and dirty! By the end of each day I was covered…. COVERED in penguin poo from head to foot! I had cuts and scrapes, banged up knees and elbows, I’d been pecked at and even pood on! But at the end of the day, I was the happiest guests onboard, because this is what I love doing – I love the challenge of getting the shots that touch the heart of my audience. I love conveying a feeling, an emotion, and putting the viewer in my shoes when I take a photo. But most of all, I love connecting with nature, feeling a part of where I am and a connection with the land and the animals that live there, and the only way I know how to do this in South Georgia is to live like a king![gallery ids="432,433,434,435,436,437,438,439,440,441,442,443,444,445,446,447"]

Some interesting antics in the Antarctic

Some fascinating things I’ve taken away from this trip so far: 1)      It’s amazing how far one can see down in the Antarctic. The air is cold and clean of dust or particulates, and we can often spot icebergs that are 50 miles or more in the distance. The southern ocean can, however, be very deceiving. Often there is a warm layer of air trapped over the surface of the water which causes a serious mirage effect, one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen, which distorts everything on the horizon.  Ice appears to be towering hundreds of feet tall in the distance, mountains appear bizarre and distorted at their base, and whatever you’re seeing cannot be trusted until you’re close enough to get a clear view. I found this effect difficult to capture in a photograph because it’s really something that you have to experience, but I did my best to portray what I was seeing in the photo I included.

 

2)      Penguins are cute, and curious little buggers! They will walk right up to you if you sit in one spot long enough, which is a heart-warming experience.

3)      While I expected the ‘white continent’ to be predominantly snow and ice, there are actually a LOT of huge mountains and rocks here! Enough to make a climber like myself drool as we pass them while I sit helplessly on the deck of the boat. Drooling, I might add, is not recommended as it will turn to ice before making it off your lips.

 

 

 

4)      There can hardly be anything as spectacular as watching a sunset with a full moon rising over an iceberg in the Antarctic. In all my travels, the sunsets here are some of the most spectacular, and with the added effect of the ice and the moon, they are without a doubt some of the best I’ve ever seen.

 

 

5)      Whale bones are huge! I thought elephant bones were big when I was in Africa, but I never thought I’d get close up and personal to the rib of a whale, next to which 6’2’’ Max pales in comparison.

6)      Ice can take on many beautiful shapes, sizes, and colors. Almost sculpture-esque in appearance, each iceberg is unique and spectacular. One of my favorite activities thus far has been cruising around on zodiacs, which presents a wonderful opportunity to check out ice around from a different perspective than the 50’ tall boat deck.

 

 

 

7)      My favorite discovery so far: When a whale surfaces at just the right angle from the ship, the reflection of light through the blow will actually create a rainbow! What a delightful surprise this was as I was photographing a pod of fin whales off the bow and I noticed that on the rare occasion when one of the whales would come up for air at just the right spot, a beautiful rainbow was formed in the wake of its blow. Fantastic! Not to mention the angle of the sun in the sky has to be perfect for this situation, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have witnessed this wonderful phenomenon!  Enjoy this photo of a 'Rainblow'

 

 

 

Whales, seals, and penguins, Oh my!

We’ve spent the past five wonderful days cruising around the Antarctic peninsula looking for the best places to see the amazing and diverse wildlife Antarctica has to offer. Some notable sightings have included a pod of killer whales, leopard seals, snow petrels (for all you birders out there), elephant seals, and as you can imagine, tons of penguins. It’s been a fantastic experience getting up close and person to these animals as many of them are not shy towards humans and will let you approach them to within a few feet. Occasionally, the curious ones will even approach you if you are sitting still enough. I was fortunate when I spent about an hour off on my own by one of the penguin colonies and three young,  inquisitive chicks came up to me, admiring me as if I were some alien from half the world away.  

Yesterday our course led us through a lot of ice, which was really entertaining as our ship smashed its way through the frozen channel. It was fun, at least, until the captain reported later that night that we had damaged the ship’s hull and were taking on water. This was the first time in this ship’s history that its hull had been broken, so I was rather amused. I watched as divers frantically gathered welding equipment and plunged into the freezing Antarctic waters as they attempted to repair the side walls. It only took about two hours to patch everything up and get moving again, which was a relief because in my opinion, the best part of the trip is still ahead (South Georgia)!

Today we actually LANDED on elephant island. This is a monumental occasion – our expedition leader, who has been to Antarctica 98 times now, has only landed here three times in the past! The weather conditions here are often horrendous, and because this island is the farthest north in the Shetland Island chain, it tends to get battered by the strong winds and waves that burden the Drake Passage (the roughest passage of sea in the world, which extends between the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic peninsula). We were extremely fortunate, however, to have blue skies and calm seas as we set sail today, which permitted us to make a landing on elephant island! It was exciting if not for the wildlife then for the history that surrounds this island, which played a significant role in Shakelton’s amazing story of endurance and survival.

Today we set sail yet again, heading north towards South Georgia Island. This, for me, will be the highlight of the trip as we will get to experience the king penguins, which number by the thousands along the shoreline. But now, a two day steam through the eastern part of the Drake – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good weather and flat seas!

Although forty foot waves and 50mph winds do make for quite an adventure….[gallery]

Antarctic Adventure Begins!

“314, please come to the reception to check in. Room 314, you have not reported back, so please make sure to do so immediately because we cannot start the boat until we have you checked in. 314, I repeat, that is room 314, please check in.”  

Yes, my mom and I are in room 314. These are the first words I hear on the megaphone speaker throughout the boat after getting back on board from our first landing in Antarctica. I guess I’m not terribly surprised, but it was certainly a bit embarrassing being called out over the entire speaker system when my mom forgot to check in after getting back on board. And yet, I cant help but wonder if our cabin will be called out again in the future… we’ll see!

Now that everyone’s accounted for, we’re steaming down the South Shetland Islands for our next excursion. We just got back on board from our very first landing, which was on Half Moon Island on the northern tip of the Shetland Island chain and it was an amazing feeling having Antarctic soil beneath my feet. Even though I was in the back of the Zodiac which brought people from the boat to the island, I was one of the first to step off. I didn’t mind standing in the 3 feet of water where I was (with my boots/waterproof pants on) and was just to eager to wait for the slow old folks in front of me to waddle their way off the boat.

I’ve always dreamed of being on Antarctica, and today that dream came true. After a few steps, I got down on my belly, and rolled around, just to soak it all in. I had to immerse myself in Antarctica! It was a fun moment for me J

Penguins were everywhere, and it’s funny because one of the most memorable things for me will be how stinky they are! Peeeuuuuwwww, I could smell them when we were still on the water! All they’ve been doing for the past month is feeding their little chicks, which involves a lot of regurgitating partially digested fish. Not surprisingly, it’s a messy job and a lot of ends up on the ground, where it builds up and up, making for an ever stinkier place to live. Must be penguin paradise…

Day 1 – fabulous. But I think it’s only uphill from here, as we have several more exciting things on the agenda. Cant wait![gallery]

Beautiful Patagonia

We’ve had the most wonderful time in Patagonia, but it’s time to say goodbye. Off to our next adventure, which I’m sure will not let us down – Antarctica.  

Patagonia was a fabulous place, full of beauty and splendor. Everywhere you look, you will find something that catches your eye, whether it’s a cold, rainy day, or a blazing hot sun-filled afternoon. My mom and I really enjoyed ourselves as we walked along lakesides, up and down the mountain trails, and around the quaint little towns that make up the ambience of Patagonia. We’ve enjoyed carrying our cameras wherever we go to capture those moments that have captured our hearts, and we hope to someday return to this beautiful land. Hasta luego, Patagonia.[gallery]

Patagonia

Patagonia can easily be described in two words: jaw-dropping. From the moment you see the spires in the distant as you fly in to the day you arrive at their base, it is an awe inspiring heaven on earth. But it’s not the size of the mountains that makes them so appealing, in fact I’ve often seen much larger formations face-to-face (Nepal, Denali … ) but rather it’s the shape of the formation that is incredibly unique here in Chile. Sheer rock cliffs jutting out of the ground thousands of feet in the air surrounded by awesome snowcapped peaks, all surrounded by turquoise streams and lakes to make an unbelievable sight, well, all the more unbelievable. We’ve only spent four nights in the park on the Chilean side, but have had no problem keeping busy. From riding bikes, to hiking the splendid trails, to walking along the many lake beaches, and cruising the bumpy dirt roads in our miniature South American rental car, we’ve had an absolute blast seeing all there is to see in this majestic land. Next up: the Fitz Roy range in Argentina for a few nights before the real adventure begins – our cruise to the Antarctic!

 

 

 

DSCN0508Our hotel the first night we were in El Calafate, before driving to Patagonia

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Lamb, roasting on the fire! Yummy!!

 

 

 

 

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Biking in Patagonia, gorgeous!

 

 

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Beautiful lakes everywhere

 

 

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My mom, mountain biking extraordinaire!

 

 

 

 

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The very funky and very cool eco domes we stayed inDSCN0557

Llamas roam the land, they're everywhere!