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Cruising to the Antarctic

The Antarctic is still one of the world’s greatest wilderness areas and I have always wanted to experience its pristine beauty. It is a place that still holds many mysteries and exciting tales of early explorers who have tried to unlock and explore its secrets. Its potentially hostile conditions keep us humans in check and respectful of something far greater than us. So when Orion invited me to join the expedition team on board their luxury cruise ship, to help people with photography on an Antarctic adventure, I jumped at the chance.

The Antarctic also has great significance to me as it is where one of my hero photographers Frank Hurley (1885 -1962) really made his name as an adventurer and photographer on his expeditions with early explorers like Mawson and Shackleton. Hurley’s voyage with Shackleton became one of the greatest survival stories of all time. Their ship was trapped in Antarctic pack ice and eventually was crushed and sank. The ship didn’t live up to its name, “Endurance”.  But the expedition team did endure – against incredible odds. While most people would freak out about this situation, those intrepid explorers just dealt with it. Shackleton undertook an epic journey by life boat to get help while the others waited for rescue. They all knew the odds were not good for survival.  Yet while Hurley waited, he kept shooting photos of the ship as it was slowly crushed by the encroaching ice and as its sank, taking with it their primary means of survival. What an amazing man, to be faced with the likelihood of death and yet keep shooting to document the event. Eventually, Shackleton was able to raise help and Huxley and the rest of the team were saved. Hurley displayed great presence of mind to keep photographing through such an ordeal and those images have become some of his most famous. It just goes to show that out of great tribulation can sometimes come our greatest opportunities. It all depends on how we face our fears.

The Orion Antarctic Adventure set sail from Bluff New Zealand and as soon as I saw the ship and looked inside I was impressed. I thought, “Franky (Hurley) Baby, eat your heart out.” This is surely the way to go adventuring – in five star luxury.

As we left the docks we were warned by the expedition leaders that we were now in expedition mode which means be ready for anything as inclement weather conditions can mess with even the best laid plans. There was a lot of sea time between locations and I had been warned that the seas could get rough. On the bed they even had Velcro straps which had me a little concerned when I discovered they were for keeping you in bed in big seas. I was armed with sea sick tablets and the works but in the end our whole trip was amazingly calm.

We stopped at some of the islands that form part of New Zealand’s sub Antarctic territories. Snares Island and Auckland Islands were very interesting but I was keen to get to the areas under Australian control like Macquarie Island and Commonwealth Bay on the Antarctic Continent.

On the fourth day Orion came to anchor at the World Heritage site of Macquarie Island and we went ashore. This is a wildlife wonderland, with ruggedly dramatic wind-swept landscapes. It is really hard to convey in words the emotions that are evoked as you spend time with all the seals, birds and thousands of penguins parading along the waterfront. There are rules as to how close human visitors can be to the local wildlife but inquisitive penguins, oblivious to the rules, come right up to you if you sit quietly.

After we left Macquarie Island, it took another three days to reach the Antarctic continent and all the way there were interesting activities onboard the ship. We were being waited on like royalty while plowing through pack ice and seeing huge icebergs slip past the port holes.

The first sight of mainland Antarctica was awe-inspiring and at Port Martin we visited a couple of locations by Zodiac, weaving around the ice and wildlife. That day the weather was magnificent with bright blue skies and wispy clouds. The next day katabatic winds and stormy weather threatened our chances of going ashore to the place I most wanted to go, Mawson’s Huts at Cape Denison. We waited for the wind to finally drop to a level where we were able to make a Zodiac landing. It was rough and some people who did not have their photo gear protected properly unfortunately had their cameras ruined by salt water.

I went ashore with the first landing party and was allowed into Mawson’s Huts with Alasdair McGregor – a walking encyclopedia on anything Antarctic. He knew all about my hero, Frank Hurley. To be in the hut that was home for so many adventurous people really helped me get a profound sense of how difficult it must have been for those early explorers. To see Frank’s initials on his bunk and be in the darkroom in which he processed many of his classic prints, was for me like being in a holy place. On the wall of the darkroom was a quote probably written by Frank himself, “Near enough is not good enough”.

We had come a long way for this experience and no one was disappointed.  But as the katabatic winds began to rise once more and threatened to lock us in, we headed back to the safety of our ship.

Visiting the Antarctic continent is like entering a timeless sanctuary that gives us a portal to look deeper into ourselves and the mysteries of nature. My visit gave me only a brief glimpse but I already feel a longing to return and explore more of the great Antarctic continent.

 Photo tips for the Antarctic

  • Make sure you take your camera gear out of an air conditioned environment well before you want to use it, so you don’t have problems with condensation.
  • Carry a clean cotton T-shirt to clean your optics if you do get some condensation or need to clean rain spots off your lens or equipment.
  • Any time you are on the ocean in boats, make sure you have a completely waterproof (Storm) case or dry sack to protect your precious camera gear, as salt water and cameras don’t mix. People can make the mistake of thinking a normal camera case is waterproof, but this is often not the case.

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