Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Ultimate Antarctica 2008

Once again, in our talks and conversations with trip participants, we felt that some of the photographers on the trip could have benefitted from taking our Digital Complete Nature Photo Course. Professional photographer John Shaw, also a coleader on this trip, did several wonderful LIGHTROOM demonstrations, where there was a huge amount of interest. Since Lightroom is such a new, and very powerful and useful program, we decided to add a Lightroom course to our 2008 schedule.

We started 2008 in a grand style, flying south to Ushaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world where we would join Joe Van Os, and several other photographers and naturalists to co-lead Joe's Ultimate Antarctica Photo Tour. For over three weeks we sailed through the southern ocean, visiting the Falkland Islands, South Georgia (the island of), and the Antarctica peninsula. This was the second time for us helping with a Van Os trip, and like our first experience two years ago, it was a blast, good fun, and photographically, extremely productive. This year's trip was scheduled approximately one month earlier than our preceeding trip, and the activity with the birds and the seals reflected this. Whereas we saw few Adelie penguins on our first trip, this time we did some of our most exciting work with this tuxedo-clad small penguin. In all we saw and photographed seven species of penguin - king, macaroni, Adelie, chinstrap, gentoo, Magellanic, rock-hopper; two albatross species, four true seals - Weddell's, leopard, crab-eater, and elephant; Antarctic fur seals (the eared seals), and humpback and orca whales.

In late November-early December of 2009, Joe Van Os is planning on doing another Ultimate Antarctica trip, and we'll again be joining Joe as two of the leaders. That trip will perhaps be the best of all for penguin photography, since the birds will be on eggs, perhaps on snow, and will be clean, active stone-stealling nesters, and the seal activity will be at its peak. We can't wait.

On this year's trip I kept a daily journal, which I've reprinted here to best tell the Antarctic story. On some days the journal was rather brief, especially if we made two landings or did a full day, but the images help tell the story that my words did not. The illustrations are a mix of Mary's and my shots -- you can guess that Mary's are the ones you'll like best!

Day One - Depart Ushuaia without incident, with Beagle Channel smooth and calm. Left around 4PM, with pilot boat leaving us around 9:30PM. En route, Peale's dolphins bow-rode and then, another group, did some great leaping. John Shaw caught it - tiny, but blown up it still looked good.
Day Two - Our cabins were almost unbearably warm, and after breakfast, as I got gear ready to photo the seabirds following the boat, I threw up - the first time ever from sea-sickness. I lost much of the morning, having no juice in me, but got some cape pigeons and giant petrels bow-riding, and eventually the sea calmed, whereupon the birds disappeared. A buff-necked ibis joined the boat and eventually departed at New Island.


Day 3 - New Island, Tony Chatter's side. About a 1 mile walk got us to a nice black-browed albatross and rock-hopper colony, much, much better than the last one we'd visited on New Island two years ago. A very tolerant striated caracara nested below a bluff, and full-frame chicks (almost full-grown) and adults, plus some King cormorants. I got a black-faced tyrant in flight, and some good Magellanic penguins, too. We started the visit by volunteering for the first shore-duty shift, but since everyone headed to the colony - about a half mile walk, we had the nearby hillsides to ourselves and a few others. The colony was sweeping, and the cliffs dramatic, and New Island, at least here, offers very impressive views.
We were scheduled to visit the NI settlement in the evening, but by 6PM it had clouded over and later began to rain. Since we wouldn't land until 8, after dinner, and it was dark, rainy, and we had had a very successful day, we passed on another landing and relaxed.
Day 4 West Point Island and Carcass Island - A heavy fog lay over the top of WPI, threatening to shroud the BB Albatross colony, and several of us were more than happy to do shore duty and shoot the bird life around shore and at the settlement. I volunteered to go to the colony - about a 1.5 mile walk, but luckily Anna and I got a ride up so that we could direct traffic. The colony was small, and the trails, a loop and one-way route, brought everyone very close to the albatrosses and rock-hoppers. I saw more grass wrens here than I've ever seen in the FI, and managed some close-ups. After a bit folks wandered off the established trail and to the back-end of the colony, but the owners didn't mind, so we got some new perspectives. Mary worked shore duty and got some great geese and ducks.
The owners of WPI told us we probably wouldn't land on Carcass, as a big front and gale-force winds was forecasted. At 3PM, as we mustered to load the zodiacs, the black clouds to our south looked pretty ominous, and as we waited to board a wind picked up, increasing steadily. Within a short time it was gusting over 20 knots, and wisely Chris, the expedition leader, cancelled the excursion. In the next few hours the wind increased to gale force, making for a somewhat rocky trip over to Saunders.
Later that afternoon Chris had to make two zodiac trips to shore with our passports to get cleared with customs, a very harrowing journey.
Day 5 - Saunders Island. Because of the wind we anchored on the north side of the neck, the ocean side, but even with much of Saunders and the neck breaking the wind's force we still had whitecaps. We had steady 30 knot winds, gusting to over 40, and even 45 knots, so we abandoned the attempt and began a rather rocky journey toward South Georgia, a three day sail.
En route, two large swells hit the boat within seconds, and people's dresser drawers, chairs, and various items were tossed to the floor. As were people, especially in the lounge, where one lady busted her lip and banged her head, and many were rocketed out of their seats - which were gliding across the lounge floor.
In the cabins it was worse. One passenger got tossed and put her head through the drywall, as well as bruising her shoulder and arm. Another banged and bruised his shoulder, and it was feared he might have torn his rotator cuff in his shoulder, but he seems, two days later, to be recovering nicely. A shiner on his right eye still testifies to his ordeal.
Day 6 - At sea. Heavy seas marked the early part of the day, making deckside shooting rather difficult. By late afternoon the wind had settled and the seas smoothed, but there still was enough wind for a few wandering albatrosses and giant petrels to be flying about.
Day 7 - At sea. A heavy fog created low visibility and a low ceiling, and with rather light winds relatively few birds were in the air. This afternoon a good part of the time was spent vacuuming clothes and packs for errant seeds that might contaminate the islands, which we hope to land on tomorrow.


Day 8, January 14, 2007 South Georgia, Elsehul and Salisbury Plains
The day began foggy and unpromising, but we hoped that the abundant Antarctic fur seals that are so abundant on the beaches of Elsehul would allow us to land. Our original plan was to do a short shore visit, followed by a zodiac cruise along the shoreline, but upon landing on Elsehul we found the shooting rather rewarding. Elsehul is characterized by three species of penguins and three albatross species, and we saw two of each - a small number of gentoos and a cluster of king penguins, and black-browed and gray-headed sooty albatrosses lined the cliffs and slopes that surrounded the bay. Fur seals characterized our visit, with numerous babies and multiple harems, but the beach masters were more concerned with rounding up errant cows than in bothering us. Our visit lasted about two hours, in time that just rushed by.
As we motored to the Salisbury Plains we had lunch, and while we dined the fog that characterized most of the morning at Elsehul began to break, with patches of blue sky and shining patches of island and ice promising sunny skies. By the time we anchored and began disembarking, the weather and seas were about as good as one could hope for in South Georgia, although that would change by day's end.
Our visit to Salisbury Plains was extremely productive, with thousands of penguins lining the beach, punctuated here and there by small groups of seals, and accented by kelp gulls, Antarctic terns, and skuas flying low over the surf. The tens of thousands of king penguins and their mollywog, brown-coated nearly full-grown chicks that cluster at the breeding colony, a congregation of birds that creeps up the tussock grass-covered slopes like an avian river, is unforgettable. As expected, as we sat or stood and watched, curious full-grown chicks marched up to us, sometimes pecking at a boot or tripod leg before ambling off.
By 5:30 a low fog that had wreathed the mountain ridges began blowing in hard, and with it winds that grew to greater than 30 knots. Our calm beach was transformed into a rolling surf, and fighting the zodiacs to shore, and loading people and gear, offered a final challenge for the day.

Day 9 Salisbury Plains and Fortuna Bay
The day started with a 5:00AM breakfast, but the light was bad and we went back to bed for a 7-ish departure for the plains. It was windy, and after a fairly good afternoon at the colony I headed east along the beach, eventually arriving at a pond where the wind had pushed the carcasses of seals. Giant petrels were actively feeding and fighting, and running grandly across the water to take off.


Day 10 Saint Andrews Bay
5:00 breakfast, but again bad weather held us back until 7:30, but Mary and I stayed out all day, catching the last zodiac after 6PM. Awesome. Spectacular. Breath-taking. The plains and meandering glacial rivers of this plain makes the Salisbury Plains look puny in comparision. The colony borders a fast-moving stream that is bordered by a few low hills, making great overlooks of the colony. My favorite shots of the day were of snowy sheathbills and skuas, both of which I shot with wide-angle closeup, with the masses of king penguins as a backdrop.


Day 11 Salisbury Plains and Prion Island
Had a 7:30 breakfast and departed around 8:45, with no wind, heavy clouds, and relatively low light. Some folks did wonderfully with penguins coming to shore quite close to our landing spot, but I wasn't motivated and instead spent time filming skulls and skeletons of dead seals, a whale vertebrae, and a bunch of seals.
In the afternoon nearly half the participants stayed on board when we landed on Prion Island for wandering albatrosses. Joe Van Os painted a realistic picture of the conditions, especially based upon our last trip 2 years ago, so a lot of folks were disinclined to go. The weather was drizzly and windless, and didn't look promising. However, the weather improved and by day's end we had diffused sun, and several nests, and several times birds moving about came within frame-filling distance of our 500mm's. Two people got nice shot South Georgia pipets, the most southernly songbird, too. All told, a great afternoon, making our last trip a nightmarish memory.

Day 12 Gryveken and Saint Andrews Bay
A cold and snowy morning marked arrival at G, and I didn't think I'd be very motivated to shoot more ruins and relics from the whaling days, but I was surprised. I looked for symbolism, the old and the new, and whether I was successful or not I had a lot of fun. Mary had everyone meet John Fowler, our old friend from the Falklands, by name. John is now the assistant manager of the gift shop, and the three of us had a nice tea-time talking about old times. A toast to Shackleton finished our morning - I climbed the hill to do an aerial of the toast.
It was cold and dreary, and grew increasing duller when we landed at Saint Andrews Bay, and for a time the elephant seal that performed so well for Christine again did so, but by the time I could get my gear ready it was finished. Got some ok shots of king penguins amongst the elephant seals, and seals playing and running. A small herd of reindeer grazed just across the stream, but they weren't too inspiring. As the afternoon progressed the seas grew rougher, and our sand spit, where we had stored our gear, began to get waves washing over the lower end. Mary, Chris, and I were at the beach when the first group loaded a zodiac to return to the boat, but a wave beached the zodiac and it took a few extra people, leaving the boat, to push it back into the water. That was the easy part. The next two zodiacs experienced increasingly difficult launchings, but by the fourth or fifth the other guides had joined us, and together we fought to launch the boats. It was tough, and demanding, and Chris Edwards, particularly, was beaten and soaked by the waves. Many of the guides only had hip-waders, and almost all had very wet legs by the end. It was punishing, physically, but aside from the risk of flipping a zodiac that angled in wrong, or breaking a leg or wrenching a knee hitting one of us as it surged to shore, it wasn't that bad. Except none of us wanted to repeat that again! The landing at the boat surged two meters or so, and zodiacs banged about, making getting back onto the boat a challenge.

Day 13 Gold Harbor
Increasingly powerful winds created a surging boat, making getting on to the zodiacs a challenge. The crew felt a landing wouldn't be too difficult, but afternoon yesterday's fight on the beach I wasn't looking forward to it. At any rate, we cancelled the Gold Harbor shore landing as the winds increased to 30 knots and the seas got increasingly rough.
Later that morning we cruised a macaroni penguin colony along southern part of Royal Bay. Mary and I did two zodiac runs, with the first very rough, cloudy, and bumpy. Mary's zodiac was almost swept into shore - a real dilemma if that had happened, but she had a blast. The second zodiac ride was fairly smooth in comparison, and everyone did pretty well.
In the afternoon we landed near Ross Glacier, in Little Moltke Harbor, where king penguins were moulting and a huge glacial face and stranded small bergs marked the afternoon. I tried several 4-8 second exposures with the Singh-Ray variable neutral density filter - probably the best stuff I shot that afternoon.
Day 14 Cooper Bay
This morning was probably one of the best weather days we've ever had at South Georgia, being long-sleeve shirt weather and sunny, and, without a wind, we were able to zodiac in to an easy landing at Cooper Bay for a macaroni penguin colony. These penguins nest on steep, tussock-covered hillsides, and initially the shooting was pretty iffy, with a lot of vegetation screening birds, most of which were muddy. Later, a few of us circled high, avoiding hidden fur seals, and got onto the sun-lit side of the colony and a much more open view, for some good shots. Several participants had great, clear view of birds with chicks - better than I had from a much more difficult position, so pretty successful day.
In the afternoon we cruised up the 11 mile long Drygalski Fjord, in catabatic winds that reached hurricane force of 70mph. It was fun walking into the wind,
especially at spots along the ship that formed a wind tunnel, giving us the chance to experience what a small hurricane-force wind would be like. A few snow petrels unexpected appeared, along with cape petrels, and I got both.
In the late afternoon we headed south, leaving South Georgia. En route, a weird low-hanging rainbow arched across the eastern horizon, at times framing icebergs. As night settled, we're heading through a maze of tabular iceberg, some probably 20 miles long, with a sea filled with small bergs. Most of the officers of the boat are on deck, and they, and we, are hoping that are passage - now detoured somewhat because of these huge bergs, won't be blocked off and we'll be forced to retrace our steps. Scary in a way, because if a ship would get cut off, and these mammoth mountains of ice would drift together, they'd squash a ship like a bug! To date, that hasn't happened … so let's hope we don't set a precedent.

Day 15 At Sea to the South Orkneys
A day of lectures on the boat, and after the first one, where I froze in the lecture room and still managed to fall asleep through much of it, I decided to recoup and spent most of the rest of the day either sleeping or reading. I really needed to recharge.



Day 16 At Sea
Our arrival into the tabular icebergs of the Orkneys was delayed because of sea ice and fog, and when we arrived - which should have been a dawn shoot of magical icebergs, we were greeted by a pea soup fog. Rather than waste time, we continued on toward Paulet Island for Adelie penguins.
Day 17 Cruising into the Antarctic Sound toward Paulet Island
We had close to perfect weather as we cruised into the iceberg and ice strewn Antarctic Sound, encountering a very curious trio of humpback whales that approached the boat several times and made for great shooting. Later, at a greater distance, we saw the distinctive dorsal fin of a Minke whale, and later still, as we began to encounter penguins on ice flows and porpoising through the water, we saw three or four orcas. One of these seemed to hover in the water, motionless, and we were hoping, at the penguins' expense, that it would pursue one of the many groups of penguins that raced through the flows. Everyone shot a lot of images - the weather was almost cloudless, until late in the day when another fog set in.
We arrived at Paulet just before dinner and anchored very close to shore. A large flat berg covered with Adelies floated just off shore, and after dinner, whether because the boat drifted closer or the iceberg did, we were close enough for nice 500mm shots of the penguins, many of which obliged by diving in. Later it cooled and snow flurries obscured the island, and we hoped that the colony would get a nice coating for the next day's shoot.
Day 18 Paulet Island AM
A 5AM breakfast and a 6:00AM departure for the island, under somewhat dreary skies. Penguin chicks were crèched everywhere, and there was a tremendous amount of activity, both on the shoreline and at the colony. Blue-eyed shags nest on the island also, and periodically during the morning masses of birds would leave the colony and sweep down the shoreline. I was facing the sun (which was mostly obscured) so I didn't have good light for flight shots, but tried some with my wide-angle and flash as they swooped by. I had a bit more luck sitting at the shoreline with my 16-35, catching penguins along the shoreline and the sweep of grounded icebergs and leaden sky in the background.
Goughlet (Gaughin?) Island PM
We cruised back through the Antarctic Sound, leaving Paulet for a 5 hour trip to G Island. En route we had the most spectacular weather - no breeze, no clouds, virtually ripple-less seas, and tabular icebergs and huge floes everywhere. If anything, the scene seemed even more spectacular than yesterday when we cruised into the Sound.
G Island had not been visited by anyone in our crew before, but three species of penguin nest here. It turned out to be a spectacular site and sight, with massive Adelie colonies on the hillsides and small peninsula-like projections filled with clusters of tightly bunched Adelies waiting to dive into the surf. A lone leopard seal patrolled the coastline, perhaps the reason for the penguin's bunching.
The day started relatively warm and cloudless, and most of the group migrated to a viewing area where we could shoot penguins gathered in these shoreline clusters. At times scores of penguins would porpoise in to the rocks, making for a great show albeit a challenging photograph. There was a lot of opportunity for filming Adelies feeding chicks, often against a clear sky or a very distant mountain backdrop, so clean backgrounds were easy.
While we shot, a sea fog gathered in the west which eventually bathed the island in a softer light, and heralded high winds. We had landed at low tide on an easy rocky beach, but we left in a rising tide buttressed by the winds. It made for an interesting departure, but not nearly as challenging or physically taxing as those we had had on South Georgia. The temperature plummeted, too, just showing how variable, and how fast, the weather down here change.

Day 19 Ronge' and George's Point and Neco Harbor
Clear skies and ideal temperatures marked our landing at Ronge' at George's Point, and within minutes of our arrival on the island six humpback whales appeared, eventually swimming quite close to shore. For those hardy enough to get up early, the light at 5AM, about one half hour after sunrise, was soft and exquisite, and the air cold, so much so that the the standing water on the deck froze within minutes. Great glacial views and spectacular scenery defines George's Point, making great backdrops for the colonies of gentoo and chin-strap penguins. Many of the good gentoo penguin nests were fairly close, and many of the chicks and adults were clean-feathered, in contrast to the rather guano/krill stained coats of the chin-strap penguins that nested higher up on the slopes and isolated pinnacles.
When the humpbacks appeared zodiacs were launched in hopes of up close and personal whale photography, but the whales showed no curiosity and continued out to sea. All wasn't lost, however, because the zodiacs rides along the huge icebergs stranded in the bay made for spectacular shooting.
Along the beach a lone, extremely somnolent Weddel's seal offered good views but little in the way of action. In fact, many people passed by not even noticing the sleeping seal. In the afternoon we had another, slightly more animated Weddel's seal at Neco Harbor, which, surrounded by gentoos, made for some interesting shots.
Our arrival on the Antarctic mainland at Neco Harbor was, appropriately, marked by a light snow, giving everyone a true sense of the South. Remarkably, shortly after everyone came ashore another pair of humpback whales appeared, cruising quite close to shore. With stranded mini-bergs, gentoo penguins, and knock-out scenery there was plenty to shoot, so everyone's attention was diverted from the sea when a humpback did a full breach, arching out of the sea and crashing back, a splash that drew everyone's attention a few milliseconds too late.
Neco Harbor's glacier face is simply awesome, and either as the subject or the background for intimate shots of gentoo penguins nesting and feeding chicks, or stranded icebergs along the shoreline, the photography was incredible.
The day ended with the famous Antarctic barbeque and Margie's birthday, celebrated In the lounge with a sinfully rich chocolate concoction while, through the windows, glaciers and icebergs passed by as we motored south towards Paradise Bay.

Day 20 Lamiare Channel, Pleneau Bay, Jugla Point and Port Lockroy
The day started early - Mary got up at 4AM to check the skies, but it was overcast and didn't look promising and came back to bed. I couldn't sleep, so I got up at 4:30 and carried outdoor clothes and gear up in hopes that the light would break and we'd have sweet light over the mountains in the L channel. It never happened, and we all just hung out in the lounge watching as the magic hour of light came and went.
Breakfast was at 6AM, and at 7AM we did zodiac cruises through the impressive and strikingly beautiful iceberg bay at Pleneau. On my first of two zodiac cruises we encountered a very curious leopard seal which swam to, and under, our zodiac several times. Joe V's zodiac had even better luck - the seal reared up out of the water (Joe caught the shot) and then started chewing on the zodiac. Crab-eater seals were far less common than two years ago, although we did see four or five, but the shooting was rather mundane. The icebergs were anything but, with designs, swirls, and shades of white and blue - one must see it to appreciate it, and I couldn't help but think that if global warming continued this ethereal beauty could be lost, a sublime heritage that would take ages to replicate.
Wind and rain conspired to dissuade a second late morning stop, our last chance for Adelie's, so we headed up the Lamiare Channel towards Port Lockroy. Mayr and I switched duties part way through the shift - I spent the first half of our afternoon landing at Port Lockroy, which features a small museum and gift shop and a gentoo penguin colony. The caretakers wanted everyone to stay in the immediate vicinity of the settlement , as the colony had suffered hard this year from skua predation and from unusually heavy rains, so the shooting was limited.
The latter part of the afternoon I spent at Jugla Point, where scattered colonies of gentoos and a few blue-eyed shags occupy the rocks. A partially reconstructed whale skeleton and several piles of whale bones offer some shooting, as well as the gentoos, but this site had to take the prize for the dirtiest and muckiest shooting site, and with relatively filthy birds. I found one pair still tending an egg - probably infertile, and if not, destined for doom as a chick could never grow quickly enough to escape winter, and one of the adults continued to gather stones, or attempt to steal other stones from other nests, which provided some good close-ups. By 5PM it was raining steadily and very wet I returned with the last passengers to the ship.
That evening we had an open bar for the passengers - a loud, good time.
Day 21 Half Moon Bay and Haitcho Island PM
Our last full day on the Antarctica Peninsula, and fairly successful. Half Moon Bay has a large chinstrap colony, and by climbing nearly to the top of the island - the areas that were permissible, I managed to get feeding shots of some reasonably clean chicks.
Our last stop, Haitcho, was a bit anticlimactic. It was raining and a bit windy, and in truth I think most of the leaders were tired and burned out, but the landing was easy and the shooting - of chinstraps and gentoos, was quite good for the first part of the afternoon session. Later, toward our 'last zodiac' call at 7PM it got sea-misty, cold, and windy, and I was cold enough to put handwarmers in my gloves - the first time I did that on the trip, although had I remembered to, I may have done so earlier.
Day 22 At Sea
Rather uneventful, with some fearsome swells and rocking conditions for much of the day, knocking cutlery to the floor and some passengers into swaying tables.
Day 23 At Sea to Ushuaia
The second day of the much feared Drake Passage was a piece of cake - hardly a wave or swell, and almost birdless skies. We made great time, arriving at the head of the channel before dinner, where we had to anchor for the night. With a calm boat, we had a great last evening party.
Day 24 Ushuaia
6:30 breakfast, clearing the boat at 7AM, and we were all off the boat by around 8:30. Trip ends.