Tag Archives: antarctica

A magical penguin moment

My magical penguin moment on the sea ice

I was out on the sea ice yesterday, enjoying an incredibly warm morning, taking in the sun. I dozed off for a while. I was woken up by mother calling me… “Ryan…. Ryan…!” When I opened my eyes, she told me to look around. Several penguins were within feet of me, looking at me curiously. I had lain so still that they felt comfortable enough to approach. This is what experienced Antarctica travelers call a magical penguin moment… AWESOME. :)

Day 3: Landfall Antarctica: Lots of Ice and Penguins

On Day 3 of our trip, we approached the Aitcho Islands archipelago, which is located in the northern part of the English Strait near the South Shetlands. We landed on Barrientos Island for our first visit with penguins! Here are 20 photos that capture the major highlights of the day.

1. First sight of the Antarctic Peninsula which is actually a series of islands that jut up and outwards from the continent itself as if aimed at South America. The area at which we arrived is known as the South Shetland Islands and is a popular stop for Antarctica tourists traveling from South America.
2. My mother Maureen and I sitting on the Bridge of the ship and enjoying the sunny weather. The Bridge is where the Captain and his Officers navigate the ship. On this journey, the Bridge has been open 24/7 to all passengers who would like to learn more about the ship.


3. A pair of Kelp Gulls in flight over the Bridge. The Kelp Gull is the only seagull found in Antarctica.
4. Fellow expedition members on Barrientos Island visiting the penguin colonies.
5. Arriving at Barrientos Island on an inflatable boat known as a Zodiac. The boats have about six different inflatable components, so that if one or two (or even three) are punctured, the boat will still float and function.
6. Mating season has is just finishing up. Here, two Gentoo penguins are in their nests, sitting on top of their eggs to keep them warm from the still relatively cold Antarctic summer.
7. Our ship, the National Geographic Explorer, anchored off of Barrientos Island. Fellow expedition members are walking around seeing their first penguins of the trip. That is a Gentoo colony in the foreground.
8. Two Chinstrap penguins ambling around. The one on the left has red stains on its belly. It looks like blood but in fact its guano (penguin shit) which it picked up from surfing the snow. (I also picked some up on my snow trousers as I was lying on the ground taking photos.) The colour of their droppings depends on what they have been eating. Since this guano is red, we know that these penguins have been eating krill. Penguins also eat shrimp (in which case their guano would be white/yellowish).
9. A Chinstrap penguin intent on the road ahead.
10. Two Gentoo penguins tending to their eggs. The ground around them has a reddish tone because it is covered in guano. It is unusual to have two penguin species co-habitating in an area as they were on Barrientos Island. Gentoos have a less aggressive nature than the Chinstraps, a very different call and the Chinstraps have the distinctive black line on their face.
11. A popular pastime among penguins is stealing stones from other penguins to fortify their nests. Here, the challenger on the left creates a distraction in order to allow his co-conspirator to steal one. Smart!
12. A Gentoo ambling along in a familiar pose: wings spread back, head forward.
13. A Gentoo penguin earning an honest living from the rocks on the beach.
14. Two Chinstraps fresh from a swim in the ocean.
15. A Chinstrap scratching its head. The underside of its wings is a reddish colour – penguins apparently have a mechanism that allows them to cool off in hot weather by sending increased blood to their wings where they can air out (sort of like our sweating).
16. A Chinstrap having fun in the water!
17. A Gentoo taking a nap, cooling off by exposing as much of his body to the snow as possible.
18. A penguin egg that was stolen and eaten by a Chilean skua (a type of bird).
19. The first iceberg sighted during the trip. A prize was offered to the first passenger who saw one. The winner was a 10-year old boy who was given a free t-shirt. :)
20. View of the bow of the ship heading out of Lindblad Cove through a field of berger-bits and growlers (icebergs smaller than 25m and icebergs smaller than 5m, respectively).

The power of the cold and the wind

Holding on to the railing of the National Geographic Explorer, as gale-force winds whip against my body, in Lindblad Cove (Antarctica)

Last night, we cruised into Lindblad Cove, an inlet about 5km across which is named for a Swedish adventurer Lars-Erik Lindblad in honour of all that he did to promote awareness and conservation of Antarctica. Its about 10pm in this photo and still fairly light out. I could barely withstand the gale-force winds, among the strongest winds I have ever felt in my life. In front of is a massive glacier which is (slowly) sliding into the Southern Ocean and has a mountain on either side of it. As we watched, a huge section of the glacier calved off and slipped into the ocean in front of us, generating huge waves and creating new icebergs. The cold, the wind, the sheer power of it all is absolutely terrifying and thrilling at the same time. This is Antarctica!

Day 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

View of the Drake Passage from the Library Room at the top of the National Geographic Explorer. Relatively calm waters in the morning.

I am currently on an expedition to visit Antarctica with my mother. Our ship’s name is the National Geographic Explorer and during our ten-day air and sea voyage, we will visit the southern tip of Argentina and various parts of the Antarctic peninsula.


The Drake Passage is a body of water about 800km wide where both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet. It might be best known for being the location of Cape Horn, the southernmost point of land on the South American continent and a historical shipping landmark. Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century trading ships were required to sail around Cape Horn to reach the other side.

For Antarctica tour ships coming from South America, most begin from Ushuaia as ours did. To reach the Antarctic Peninsula which is the easiest Antarctic destination to reach, ships must first cross the Drake Passage. Although the Passage is fairly straightforward and clear of obstacles, the confluence of trade winds from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the convergence of the cold Antarctica sea water with the relatively warm sub-Antarctic currents can create the conditions for a turbulent journey. We are warned by our expedition leaders that the weather looks good but that the situation can change quickly. Swells could be as high as 60 feet, and in case they aren’t, we should still tell our friends back home that they were, as anything less would be disappointing.

Captain James Cook circumnavigated Antarctica twice and though he never actually saw the continent, he travelled through the Drake Passage. He said of it: “I dare say no man shall ever benefit from visiting this place.”

Fortunately weather was on our side, and although the ship rolled substantially during the night and throughout Day 2, we were comfortable in our cabin. My mother remarked that the listing of the ship was much less than what she had experienced on her trans-Atlantic voyage with my father in 2002.

Since our ocean voyage will be fairly mundane (saying this with a smirk!), today is a good day to prepare and get things done. The schedule for the day included a photography Q&A, a session on birds of the Antarctic, in addition to a mandatory briefing on the Antarctica Treaty. Since I have never been properly trained in photography, I am keen to learn new tricks for using my digital SLR Nikon D90 18-55mm lens and 70-300mm telephoto lens.

The session organiser suggested that digital camera owners tend to fall into one of two groups: first, the technical types who can easily operate complicated gadgets but have difficulty in imagining the photo they want to create; and second, the creative types who can conceive a beautiful image but have no idea how to use their camera to capture it. The session included a quick orientation and then split us off into four groups: beginners; owners of camera brands A-M (ie Canon), owners of brands N-Z (ie Nikon), and those looking for creative inspiration.  I opted for the Nikon session although was quite tempted to join the creative one which was to be hosted by Kim Heacox, the National Geographic photographer travelling with us for this expedition. A tough choice!

From my session there were three main things that I took away:

First, the unique thing about Antarctica is the stark black and white contrast. There’s a lot of snow, ice, rocks, water and black/white penguins. I learn that when digital SLR cameras see a scene with a lot of white in it, such as a landscape of snow, ice and a few penguins, they auto-correct the exposure and leave you with a shot that does not capture the full whiteness of the scene. Our instructor suggests using the +/- exposure setting to manually over or under-expose the shot based on the amount of white in the photo. So, if a photo has a lot of white in it, the photographer can compensate for the camera’s auto-correct by adding exposure back to the image (my camera has a range of -5 to +5). This helps to make the image look like it really does to the naked eye.

My second big take-away was in learning when to use white balance. This setting can help bring out warm or cold colours in a photograph: think reds and blues. These are very useful in Antarctica for shooting icebergs with bluish shadows, warm sunsets or sunrises or capturing subtle tones of a calm body of water.

The final big learning is the aperture. Aperture is probably one of the most common settings on an advanced camera, but is not something that I have ever learned to use properly. The purpose of aperture is to adjust the depth of field of a photo, so that you can capture multiple subjects in focus. With a low aperture (ie a low F number), your depth of field will be small. This will be good for up close and personal shots such as a group portrait, where you don’t want background objects to come into focus. However, say you have two or three penguins standing one behind the other, 2 or 3 feet apart. You may want to set your aperture at a higher level so that your depth of field expands and captures all the penguins in focus.

Having learned these new tips and tricks, I felt inspired to invite Kim Heacox to lunch with my mother and I. Perhaps he would let me pick his brain! One of the incredible advantages of travelling with National Geographic is having access to these world renowned experts – what a treat!

Lunch on the National Geographic Explorer
L to R: Ryan, my mother Maureen, Melanie Heacox, Kim Heacox

So Kim agreed to join us for lunch with his wife Melanie. They are a husband and wife team who have followed their passions their entire lives. Since 1993 they have been participating in National Geographic trips to Antarctica, offering their insight and assistance to travelers. Kim is an *award-winning” photographer for National Geographic and has published eight books. More recently he has begun working on fiction novels, and describes writing as a new passion that evolved from his career in photojournalism.

As for Melanie, she is a “naturalist” who knew from the early age of 7 that she wanted to be a park ranger. She told us the story of how she visited Yellowstone National Park with her parents and upon finding out that a park ranger actually lives within the park rather than travelling to and from a home in the city, she was inspired and set herself to becoming one. At 24 years old, she graduated and then spent the next thirty years of her life working at famous US national parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and others around Alaska, where she met her husband Kim. As park rangers are entitled to an annual furlough, she used the time to travel to Antarctica and fell in love with it. Since then, she has been on 38 trips to the continent.

My mother had a lot to talk about with these two, drawing on her recent travels to Alaska and work as a guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. My mother certainly knows how to inject passion into a conversation! We had a great lunch together and inspired by what we talked about, I got to thinking about a few things.

Over the last ten years or so, I have learned through practice and experience that a photo can tell a story much more powerfully than words can. So as I have travelled, I have sought to take photos that capture the emotions or feeling in a particular scene, such as a street vendor and his basket of fruit. I think that every word in a book has its rightful place in a story. Just the same: photos when taken properly, captured at the right moment, can inject magic into the routine.

My Nikon D90 with its 70-300mm telephoto lens, covered in a “rain sleeve” and sitting on a Joby tripod

On this trip, the first rule is to always have your camera with you. At the same time however, I feel that one can often get lost behind the camera instead of choosing to enjoy the moment in person, with the naked eyes. To a certain extent I think, if one depends on a camera to create the memories, the brain loses the incentive to keep these memories for life. So, I think as I have become a better photographer, I have started to take fewer photos, choosing only those most impactful and powerful moments to capture on digital media.

When you take a photo, ask yourself what you know about the subject. What do you notice about the behaviour of a bird, wave or iceberg? Is it familiar or odd? How can you bring that behaviour to life in the photograph? Feel the relationship between you and that bird. Get to know the bird through its movements and then photograph it more intimately. (Unfortunately I am still practicing so I can’t post a good example!) :) And ironically, despite the heavy focus on photography in this blog post, there are few photos to share today (experiencing a very slow connection on board right now).

This all brings to mind an old Inuit poem:

Let me see,
Is it real,
This life I am living?

The conversation with Kim and Melanie provided a good opportunity to get an answer to a question by my friend Eric who asked: What is a naturalist? As Melanie describes herself as one, I asked if she could provide a definition. She said that a naturalist is someone who possesses general expertise about the natural environment. Naturalist can also be a catch-all term.  For example, a naturalist may also be a specialist in other areas, such as insects, wildlife, or rocks. The naturalist might then have a sub-classification such as an etymologist (insects). Melanie says that her particular interest is in ice. I was tempted to ask her what she thinks of the project to capture ice and water samples from the sub-glacial lake in Antarctica. I think I will do that if I see her again around the passageways of our ship, the National Geographic Explorer. :)

What a ride!

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, champagne in the other, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming, “WOW, what a ride!””

Quoted by Melanie Heacox, a Naturalist on board the National Geographic Explorer, while crossing the Drake Passage

Antarctica travel blog: Expedition with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions

    You My mom joined me in Buenos Aires last night. Here we are at the Cesar Park Hotel about to set off on a trip to Antarctica with National Geographic. About to conquer my last of the seven continents! :) Onward ho!

Blog posts from this trip are tagged “antarctica” and you can find them by clicking here or browsing the keywords in the right-hand menu on the home page.

This morning my mother and I left from Buenos Aires, Argentina for our cruise to Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Explorer. The cruise, operated by Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic, will run for ten days from 29 November to 9 December 2012 and take us by air and sea to several destinations. We will be accompanied by naturalists, historians, scientists, undersea specialists and photo/videographers. We are also lucky to have on board Don Walsh, a world-renowned oceanographer and deep-sea diver.

During the course of our trip, I will be blogging and posting photos about our experiences. Activities will include on-shore excursions and educational sessions on birding, local wildlife and photography. Some of the items on my personal to-do list include a swim in the frigid waters around the Antarctic Peninsula, a sea-kayaking trip, and getting a whiff of some stinky penguin poop. Friends and family have asked me to share with them my thoughts about the tour and its operator, more about the part of Antarctica which I am visiting and a photo of the Weddell seal. Someone has even asked me about how I am getting access to the web.  (The answer is that it is a satellite connection and we pay by the minute on board the boat. All my blog posts are written offline and quickly uploaded when I connect once or twice daily.) Is there something you’d like to see or learn about? Please let me know by commenting on this blog post and I will do the best I can! You can also follow the ship’s Daily Expedition Report.

One of my passions is traveling and I have a dream of seeing as much of the world as possible. With this trip I will have visited each of the planet’s seven continents. I was born in North America, and first visited South America in 2001, Europe and Australia in 2006, Asia in 2007 and then Africa in 2008. So far I’ve traveled to 45 countries and four “places” – those not technically countries (which include Hong Kong, Macau, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and soon: Antarctica). You can see my travel map here.

I inherited the travel bug from my mom. Long before I was even a twinkle in her and my father’s eyes, my mother was traveling around the world frequently for work and pleasure. As I grew up, she often showed me photos of her visits to Ecuador, Hawaii and Thailand. My father, who came from a poor family and held a life-long fear of flying, preferred economising but never let that stop us from traveling. So, as I grew up, our family went on frequent road trips across Canada and into the USA, seeing lots for very little. In so many ways, this trip would not have been possible without my mom and dad; they have always encouraged me to explore, both at home and abroad.