On October 21st of 2008 I boarded the Russian icebreaker Kaptain Khlebnikov to begin my fourth voyage to Antarctica. I was on this voyage as the “Photographer in Residence”, brought on by Quark Expeditions the operator of this along with several other expedition class ships that travel to this region. We would be at sea for ten days heading into the Weddell Sea along the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula to an area near Snow Hill Island. The purpose of the voyage was to reach an Emperor Penguin colony which had only been visited for the first time in 2004.
It was a bit earlier in the season than my previous visits to Ushuaia, Argentina the farthest south city in the world and the staging area for many of the voyages heading “South”. My three other voyages had departed in mid November which is a more typical beginning to the Antarctica season.
This would be my first time aboard this vessel a ship that as an icebreaker is best suited for traveling in the often times ice packed area we would be visiting. The first voyage to Antarctica I took was aboard the Akademik Ioffe followed by two trips on its sister ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. These are ice rated research ships but not ice breakers which I would soon find out first hand are very unstable in open seas due to the shape of the hull.
We cast off around 6pm heading in an easterly direction down the Beagle Channel to the Atlantic and the infamous Drake Passage which is said to be the worst seas in the world. I can say from experience that it lives up to its reputation but on this trip the two day crossing was not bad at all. You could feel the side to side rolling of the ship much more on the Khlebnikov than would have been the case with the other ships. Another plus was the fact that we did not hit any pack ice though I did look forward to seeing the icebreaker doing what it was designed for. That time would come.
On day three we reached the calmer more protected waters of the Weddell Sea and passed between several islands as we continued on to our “parking area” close to Snow Hill Island. That afternoon the captain rammed into the fast ice surrounding the continent and we were parked. Behind us lay the open waters of the Weddell Sea and in front ice as far as you could see. Massive towering icebergs, which had been frozen in place for the Antarctic winter, dotted the surrounding view.
Not long after reaching this staging area we started to spot wildlife. A leopard seal then an Orca made brief appearances around the stern of the ship and not long after spotting them Emperor penguins started to fly out of the water and onto the ice. A brief upright walk then on to their bellies to toboggan away to the rest of the colony we would be visiting the next day.
Beginning about eight in the morning the two Russian helicopters began the shuttle service from the rear landing deck fairing passengers, mostly clad in the bright yellow parkas supplied by Quark, to the base camp which was about seven miles away. The flight lasted about eight minutes and the view from above allowed for a completely different perspective of our surroundings. One of the things I found most fascinating was seeing the icebergs of various sizes and shapes frozen in place until the summer thaw sent them on their way.
The gear used:
2 Nikon D2X bodies
Nikon 200-400mm VR-AF
Nikon 80-200mm, f2.8
Nikon 24-85, f2.8 DX ED IF
Nikon 12-24mm, f4
Nikon 105mm macro
Really Right Stuff Ballhead BH-55
Acratech GV2 Ballhead
Gitzo Carbon Fiber tripod: (never used it)
Monfrotto Monopod 680B
Canon HG-10 high def video camera
Lowe Pro trekker AW II Backpack