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. :)

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