The second part of this article deals with wet zodiac landings and nature photography in bird and seal colonies. You can read the first part via this link.
Most of our landing experience (now several hundred wet Zodiac landings) comes from the western Antarctic Peninsula and the Islands of South Shetland, South Georgia and Falkland. But we did trips to the islands off New Zealand and Australia (esp. Macquarie Is.) as well. 99% of all landings in Antarctica are “wet” mostly done by Zodiac or similar inflatable boats. Your need knee high Wellingtons to wade the last meters onto the beach. My cameras always survived well stowed away in a Lowepro Phototrekker and a big waterproof plastic bag. Nowadays, we have these wonderful dry bags… One camera with a 35mm prime or a mid range zoom you can strap around your neck to get some shots from the boat ride and the landing, if conditions permit. If it’s raining, I use a big zip lock bag for this.
The landfall is always the day’s highlight: the excursions to seal and or penguin colonies. Sometimes twice or three times a day, if weather permits, it is simply gorgeous. The experience to sit on the edge of a colony of thousands of pairs of penguins is stunning in every aspect: the smell during warmer days, the noise, the activity and of course the curiosity these birds have towards their visitors. The best opportunity to study courtship, mating and nesting of different penguin species is during December and January. For landscapes,early spring and during late October/ November and fall in March might be also an option. Fledging of penguins is during February until March. Renate has more experience with these times of the year. But weather is often less favourable (see photos of part one) and the penguin colonies got more and more empty, that’s why this is not my favourite time to go.
After being the first time on the “World Discoverer” as biology and geography lecturers, we were invited every year to accompany different trips, ships and travel agencies. So the seabird colonies of the western Antarctic peninsula became our “winter” home during most “southern summers”.
On the first trip, I took a load (about 50 kilograms) of camera gear with me. We were thinking that this might be the one and only opportunity to take photos in this very special environment…
Later on, when Antarctica became more familiar to us, I always used two Nikon bodies and about seven lenses. During the auto focus film age, it was the F4s and F801s. My beloved FM2 as a back up. We had to get rid of the most bulky and heavy stuff, the wonderful Nikkor AIS 3,5/400 IF-ED (3 kg) and its smaller companion the AF 4/300 IF-ED (nearly 1,5 kg). In 2001, they were replaced by the new AF-S 4/300 (1,4kg) with the new Extender TC14E-II which became my favourite combo. In 2007 I went partly digital with a Nikon D300. In 2010 a D700 made me to a mostly “digital” photographer, but still using my film Mamiya 645 super during good weather conditions. The combination which gave the most keepers over the years have been my F4s with the AF 2,8/80-200 ED pro zoom. Now the D700 with 70-200 is the one. For animal photos my sharp and lightweight AF-S 4/300 is very useful.
Our next trip will be starting at the end of December 2015, going exclusively to the Falkland Islands for three weeks. You are allowed to bring 20 kg in total on the small planes for the inter-island flights. So I have to downsize again. My gear will be two Nikon bodies, AF-S 4/300 and 4/70-200VR, TC 14, AF 28-85N, AF 18-35. My new Novoflex TrioPod with its two Leki walking poles and one monopod making a good light weight tripod for this excursion. Together with batteries, charger, storage cards and some filters it sums up to 10kg. Two small AIS lenses (2,8/24 and 2,8/55 micro) in my parka pockets will give some back up. I have successfully tested this set on a trip to Alaska and B.C. in August last year.
For the Falklands, 10 more kilograms of rain gear and warm clothing in a dry bag will do. My boots I will have to carry during the whole flight from Stanley to the different islands. And the laptop will be left at home, but I will bring a card reader and a small hard disk drive with me. Hopefully some of the places might have an accessible computer.
When you have arrived on the beach safely guided by your zodiac driver and some helpful hands ashore, put your cameras out of the backpack and follow your nature guide. Due to the Antarctic Treaty, we are not allowed to land parties exceeding 100 people. For every group of twenty we have an extra guide. On one of the smaller cruise ships with 100-125 passengers, you have more time ashore and often more excursions per day. 100 people ashore, 25 in the Zodiacs taxiing, photo time could easily be two hours or more per landing. If you go by a bigger vessel with about 200 or even more passengers, two groups (A and B) are formed. Changing normally with each landing. But when we have to call the first group in because of deteriorating weather conditions, there will be no landing opportunity for the second one. Some islands which are critical due to species like Wandering Albatross nesting, allow only 50 people. So if you are on a big ship, there is no chance to go. You have to use one of those Russian ice breakers with 50 persons only. There are some sites in the New Zealands part of Antarctica, you can go by Zodiac only close to the beach but nobody is allowed to land for the safety of some really endangered species like Snares or Erected-crested Penguins. If you want to see those, very rare species you have to stay in the Zodiac and photograph from this not very stable platform.
Due to the erratic movement of the boat and the birds, image stabilisation does not help very much. Use 1/1000 sec. or faster shutter speeds instead (see part one). Image stabilisation works best, if you are on dry land and need to stabilize your setup while shutter speed is below 1/500. So I would not recommend buying an extra stabilized body or lens and otherwise switch off your VR, IS, IBIS or whatever it may be called. There are some interesting posts on how and when to use image stabilization in the Internet, so you can read those to understand how stabilization works in detail and when it should or should not be used.
How to photograph from a Zodiac Boat
- Always remain seated until the boat stops and the driver tells you to get up if you want
- Always move slowly and watch your companions
- Always stay on your side of the boat
- It is not a good idea to change lenses, therefore I use two bodies with different lenses
- If you really have to change lenses be careful especially with digital equipment. Use a plastic bag. I am able to change lenses between two bodies within seconds, but I am used to stay on a moving boat
- Don’t bang your tele lens into your neighbours head :)
- Don’t carry your backpack around your neck, if you fall into the water it might block your life vest to inflate
- Always carry some dry tissue towels in your parka to clean up spectacles or front lenses
- Secure your sun glasses by a sports strap
- Don’t worry, from my experience the chances of staying safely in the boat are quite good: there is one guest per one hundred rides falling into the water, mostly amateur photographers fighting with their cameras
- More people came into contact with salt-water during wading ashore: overwhelmed by the shear scenery they stopped wading and got caught by the next wave…
- On the zodiac, photography is much more documentary and photo-journalistic. You have to be quick with your camera. So use shutter priority with 1/1000 sec. minimum depending on the speed of the Zodiac and apply Auto ISO.
Land excursions might be difficult. Anyway, they are a long lasting experience. But be well prepared: don’t drink too much coffee or tea. If you have to wash your hands you have to go back to the ship! Bring enough spare batteries and cards. Some people take a thousand pictures on one excursion but miss the “decisive moment”. From my point of view, it is best to sit down and have some nests in close observation, build your tripod and just watch and wait for some action. Better if you prepare “the journey of your life” by studying bird books at home and follow the lectures on board. I am used to have a small old style notebook (made from paper) and a pencil with me to put down date, time, weather and other useful information. At home these notebooks fill a whole shelf now, but were a trustful source of information when writing articles.
What to bring ashore
- Warm waterproof clothing, silk underwear, fleece trousers and jacket, two pairs of gloves (one water resistant for the zodiac, one pair of thin leather gloves for photography and if its really cold and windy a second pair to pull over)
- A piece of isofoam to sit upon, please strap it to the parka or backpack, because they tend to fly right into a colony…
- Sun glasses, hat
- Photo gear with spare batteries
- Binoculars for birders only
- And please, obey all the rules of nature conservation according to your briefing on the ship
- No food or smoke
- Don’t leave any trash. During the old film days, we always found empty containers
Because you will not have too much time for photography, it is better to concentrate on some nests for instance, interactions between birds on the shore or birds with landscape, landscape with typical birds, your fellow travelers interacting with penguins, etc. Well-informed staff will know what is to see in which places, because the are “best sites” for every species on which you should concentrate. The best advice is to start with your research (please not only on the Internet. Also consult old style books, as they often contain much better information) at home after getting the travel schedule with time and places to go. But often, there are changes due to weather or adverse wind conditions. Once we had a well=known German nature photographer aboard. He insists to go to “Salisbury Plains” as it was printed in the travel announcement. We sailed along the coast but due to wind, swell and surf, we were absolutely unable to land there. So we had to choose “St. Andrews Bay” instead. This was the best place I have ever seen for King Penguins, much better than Salisbury, which is fine, but he was still muttering, because he wanted to shoot what dozens of other professionals had done before…
It might also a good idea not only to copy photos and scenery that others have published before, but to go out there and find new views and visions of other birds than just penguins. Try action, portraits, close ups with your strongest tele lens, change DOF from super wide and deep to wide open aperture with blurred background and a smooth bokeh. During “bad” weather shoot portraits and close-ups. When it shines, do more landscapes. There is so much to see!
My camera settings
I use two type of settings:
- Fully manual for landscapes
- Sometimes (when there is some time pressure) also aperture priority to have control over the depth of field and let the camera control the shutter speed
- Action setting for animals:
- Shutter priority
- My 300mm prime is always wide open, also with extender
- Dynamic AF (21 AF points)
- One single AF point which I choose manually via my thumb
- Note: It is strictly prohibited to use flash
Back on the ship
On a cruise ship, life is much more comfortable! Even if you get really wet on a landing trip you can easily dry up everything in your cabin. Be careful with your camera stuff: don’t bring the ice cold cameras into your warm and moist-filled cabin to dry them out. Best idea is not to overheat your cabin. Clean your stuff first from the outside with a canvas handkerchief and then put each into a dry zip lock bag, press the air out and then go to your cabin. So you keep the moisture out. After having warmed up for an hour or two (the gear not you) you can unwrap it and clean your front lenses, filters and camera bodies, finders, everything that might got some saltwater spray. I use 70% medical alcohol (diluted with aqua bi-dest) for this. Also dry out your backpack and dry bag after every a Zodiac ride…
Some final notes
Even during summer in Antarctica you can have extreme weather, so be prepared for nausea from seasickness, getting wet from spray during zodiac rides, losing parts of your equipment due to saltwater spray or rain, if you don’t keep them dry.
Be always careful with your travel companions, your own safety and of course the safety of the animals around you. All rules on safety and nature conservation make a lot of sense, so please strictly obey them, even if you lose a shot or two. If you don’t, I would warn you once, the second time I would send you back to the ship immediately to see the captain. And I am sure that other nature guides/biologists will do so as well, because the license of the ship to land people depends on that.
Antarctica is a wonderful place to go – for me the best place on earth – so we have to enforce nature conservation for future generations. And keeping a distance of 5 meters to penguin nests, 15 to albatrosses and 50 to giant petrels nests should be really no problem… Especially Fur Seals or Sea Elephants will go for you, if you come to close. Move always slowly, don’t run or shout. Just watch your surroundings carefully, with great respect and have fun, and the best photo opportunities will come.
Article and all images are copyright of Achim Kostrzewa. All rights reserved, no use, reproduction or duplication is allowed without written permission.
Since December of 1995 we have 27 complete journeys to Antarctica under our belt. That is Renate, an animal ecologist, geographer and writer and me, Achim Kostrzewa, animal ecologist, geologist and dedicated nature photographer ever since. During summer time we have done quite the same amount of trips to the Arctic like Greenland, Svalbard or Frans-Joseph-Land.
We run our own home page for more than 10 years now (all in German: www.antarktis-arktis.de) and have published 20 books with German publishers and numerous articles. Achim has his own photo blog started in 2012.