The Gould Bay Emperor Penguin Colony, Antarctica

30 01 2012

Emperor Penguin adult and chick

Some things in life make you feel like you have won the lottery. In my case, the chance to visit a colony of Emperor Penguins in Antarctica gave me just that feeling. I was in Antarctica to guide a group to the Geographic South Pole for a great company called Polar Explorers. We chartered a flight to the penguin colony for some of our group and I was fortunate to get the chance to escort the group for the day.

Basler BT-67

Some of the group in front of the Basler BT-67

We flew a few hours from the Union Glacier  base camp in a ski-equiped, Basler BT-67 to a location on the sea ice on Gould Bay, about a mile from the colony. We landed between a couple of huge icebergs frozen into the ice.

Hiking to the penguins

Walking to the penguins from the landing spot

We hoofed it for the mile over to the spot where the penguins were gathered. What a sight! From a distance, you would swear there were a bunch of people shuffling around. We tried to keep a distance of 5 meters from the penguins, but they were so curious, they would waddle right up to you.

Even more chicks

Fuzzy gang of penguin chicks

We weren’t required to run away from them, but could not approach them. They have no land predators in Antarctica, so the penguins did not view us as any kind of threat.

Penguin Close Encounter

Hard to believe how unafraid the penguins are

I have to say the penguin chicks are just about the cutest thing you can imagine. It was all you could do to resist stuffing a few into your camera bag to take home.

the smallest chick

The smallest chick I saw– about the size of a grapefruit

The chicks were about the size of an overinflated football, or maybe a bit longer, and they travelled around in these little gangs of grey down that made me giggle like an idiot.

More Chicks

Penguin chicks showing off

Off to school

The penguins would wander alone or in groups from one cluster of penguins to another

Regal Near and Far

Some penguins waddle, some slide

The adults were about waist height and very regal. They would alternate between waddling along and sliding on their bellies.

Penguins on their bellies

Two adult Emperor penguins and one chick

The sliding looked a lot more efficient to me, but I suppose they can see a bit farther when standing and it is probably warmer not laying on the ice. The sound of the colony was a cacophony of honks and chirps. I made a short audio recording of the penguins. Listen to it here: 

Happy Feet

The penguins' feet look almost reptilian

Penguin Headshot

Closeup adult Emperor Penguin

2 chicks

Acouple Emperor Penguin chicks about the size of a football

I brought a few lenses with me to shoot the penguin colony, but I ended up shooting almost everything with a Nikon 70-210mm f/4–5.6 on a D700.  I recorded the audio with a Roland Edirol R-09HR digital recorderI think if I could do it again, I would have 2 bodies (full frame sensor) with a 300mm f/2.8 on one and a 24–70mm f/2.8 on the other. I would bring a 1 and 2 stop neutral density filter for each or a variable neutral density filter so I could get 3 stops wider open in the bright sun. A flash would have been great, but I am afraid it would be too disruptive/stressful for the penguins. If I was going to be there for a couple of days, I would bring a body that could shoot video also and a tripod with a fluid head. I would also add a shogun mike to my Roland recorder.

My camera kit was necessarily light for this trip, since it was not a photography trip, but rather a ski trip. We were to be skiing with our camping gear in sleds pulled behind us on our approach to the geographic South Pole, so camera equipment with its weight and volume was something of a luxury item. As the guide for the trip, I had to (rightfully) put the team and its needs in front of any desires I had to make photographs. Therefore, I only brought a Nikon D700 body, three lenses (20mm, 50mm, 70–210mm), and a Canon G10 point and shoot for basic video and pocketable convenience. The lens selection was pretty good overall, but I really didn’t use the 20mm with the penguins and I didn’t use the 70–210mm for the ski trip.  For a trip where I had to travel light and cover a range of situations, this kit suited me well.


Curious little penguin chicks

Just Back from the North Pole–Photography at the Top of the Planet

26 04 2011
The biggest dog EVER

Scott providing the perimeter security from polar bears on our training trip in Svalbard

This year’s trip to the North Pole was a success, with unprecedented (for me) drift of the pack ice due north and fantastic weather between -20 and -27° C. Our training trip on the archipelago of Svalbard in Norway went off without a hitch and no polar bears were seen around camp, thanks to our 143 pound alarm system, named Scott (above). We were delayed a few days getting out on the Arctic Ocean when the runway on the ice developed a crack shortly before we were to land on it, sending our plane mercifully back to Norway rather than to Davey Jones’ locker. A few days later the runway was repaired and we made our landing at ice base Barneo near 89° north. Our ski to the Pole was beautiful and benefited from the pack ice drifting north, directly towards our goal. This would have been among my very best trips to the Pole, but I developed a respiratory infection on the first day, and felt like my sled was filled with lead and I was breathing through a straw. With the help of my incredible teammates, I still managed tot have a great time.

Our ride to the Arctic Ocean

The Antonov-74, a Short Take-off and Landing Powerhouse a.k.a. Our Ride to the Arctic Ocean

My photography quiver on this trip was small, but adequate. I think I will tweak it next time a bit more, but I can’t complain. My main camera was a Nikon D700. This body is small enough for remote, self-contained travel, with powerhouse, pro features and a full frame sensor. The magnesium body can take a lot of abuse like a sled rolling over on top of it, but that metal sure is cold to hold at 20 below zero. I usually stick a self-adhesive body warmer (a big version of the disposable hand warmer) around the grip to keep my hand and the battery a little warmer, but the friendly folks at the TSA confiscated all of my body warmers when I was leaving O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I always bring these, but for some reason, they didn’t get through this year. My lenses included a rented 15mm f/2.8 fisheye Sigma, a Nikon 105 f/2.8 VR macro, a Nikon 20mm f/2.8, and a Nikon 70—210 f/4–5.6. I think in the future, I would bring a 14-24mm, a 50mm f/1.4, and an 85mm f/1.4. I didn’t find that I craved the reach of the longer telephoto with the sweeping panoramas that are up there. I think an 85 would do the job. The 105 wasn’t bad, but a bit big (then again, the 14-24 isn’t exactly petite). I didn’t find I had the time to do macro shots anyway. I was there as a guide and not a photographer, so I had to shoot quickly and not compromise my main job of getting to the Pole safely with the team as priority one. That conflict is a good topic for a later post. I carried my gear in my ever-faithful and ancient Lowepro Orion beltpack. This is the most simple camera bag ever, but provides great protection with low weight and a good carry. It has been my go-to shooting bag for years. I carried a Canon G10 in my pants cargo pocket in a sleeve I made from a cut up foam sleeping pad and some duct tape. The G10 is great for a second camera. For outdoor shots with good light, the image quality is super primo. Indoors, with natural light–not so much. But I was outside, and the G10 loves the low ISOs with 24 hours of sunlight each day. Plus you can shoot OK video, even though it isn’t HD. I considered a G12 for the HD video, but I think the body seems less rugged than the G10 and I know I would snap off that flip out screen climbing into a helicopter or trying to pull it out of my pocket with clumsy gloved hands. I brought 4 extra EN-EL3e batteries for the D700 , a blower and a lens pen. That is pretty much it. I did also bring the so-simple-it-seems-dumb-but-is-actually-freaking-awesome Think Tank AA battery pouch for my spare GPS batteries. Speaking of Think Tank, I brought all my camera gear, satellite phone, GPSs, cell phone, card reader, audio recorder, chargers, batteries, laptop, hard drive, cables, and an iPad in a Think Tank Airport Antidote 2.0. I have never moved so much electronic gear through airport security with so little hassle before. This is one fantastic bag. Think Tank has earned a loyal customer in me.

1st Annual North Pole Poetry Slam

Mr. Huang Nubo recites a poem at the first ever North Pole Poetry Slam

We celebrated our arrival at the Pole with the first North Pole Poetry Slam. Mr Huang Nubo is a respected and accomplished poet from China and recited his poetry in Chinese. The words were not understandable to me, but listening to him, I felt like I could understand what he was saying through the tone of his voice. Our friends from Iceland brought with them the dubious gift of Icelandic schnapps and “cheese shark,” which is putrified Icelandic shark. It needs to rot in the ground for six months to become “edible.” Yes it is as bad as it sounds. They admitted later that the shark was something of an excuse to get drunk on the schnapps.

Putrified Icelandic Shark

Putrified Icelandic shark, or "cheese shark"-only a (drunk) Viking could love this stuff

I needed some fresh air after the Icelandic sushi. Here is a video of the scene outside the tent.

I love to talk about photography and travel in the high(est) Arctic, so post a comment or drop me a line if you have any questions.

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