The final frontier
My escapades as a travel and wildlife photographer have taken me to nooks and corners of different countries. However, the magnificence that Antarctica upholds is unparalleled; it’s a region that in spite of its inaccessible terrain, volatile climate and isolation, never fails to attract ardent travellers every year to explore its unique topography. My obsession with this continent started when I read about the polar explorer, Ernest Shackleton who travelled to Antarctica despite the dire circumstances that stood before him. His amazing sense of adventure inspired me greatly. Furthermore, the lure of photographing the gorgeous migratory birds, penguins and varieties of fish and marine animals including gigantic whales that add to the beauty of this region was something I just couldn’t ignore.
Thus, after having travelled to 18 countries, I finally decided that I was prepared to visit the land of extremes, the land of Antarctica.
CROSSING THE SOUTHERN SEAS
Almost wholly covered by a vast ice sheet, Antarctica is fifth in size among the world’s continents. The name comes from the Greek word antarktiké meaning ‘opposite to the Arctic’. There are several ways to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. I decided to go via Argentina as it seemed to be the most convenient way from India. Emirates Airlines has a comfortable and suitable flight connection to Buenos Aires. We had an overnight halt and on the following morning boarded the 2.5 hrs flight to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city. Finally, on November 23, 2013, I embarked on the luxurious ship ‘Sea Spirit’, all geared up in my Parka jacket to sail to Antarctica. The fascinating journey comprising the Beagle Channel coupled with the humorous orientation from our expedition leader Cheli Larsen and his team was quite entertaining. Add to it our interesting company, comprising an over-enthusiastic 85-year-old man and a five-month pregnant lady who had specially saved up for this trip. Well, that’s the magic of Antarctica! It attracts all and sundry.
THE DRAKE PASSAGE
After 4 –5 hours of smooth-sailing we finally hit the notorious Drake Passage. Located between the southern tip of South America at Cape Horn, Chile and the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, the passage is akin to an unpredictable roller coaster ride. The impending waves go almost nine feet high, the gushing wind speeds above 50 kmph and the constant swaying of the ship can leave you jittery, nauseous and praying for your life! Dr. Chris King from the expedition staff was kind enough to comfort me with pills to prevent sea-sickness. But what really kept me going through the arduous journey were the splendid sightings of birds like the Snowy Petrel, Giant Petrel, Cape Petrel, Northern Fulmar, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and Black-browed Albatross. To tell you the truth, however, shooting pictures, given the scary weather conditions and a shaky vessel was a task in itself! After 42 hours of sea journey, we finally reached the Antarctic Peninsula where each one of us had to go through a purification process. To ensure that this pristine and vulnerable region does not get contaminated by its myriad visitors, every voyager’s shoes were immersed in disinfectant. In fact, we were thoroughly cleansed before boarding the Zodiac (a small inflatable boat), our main mode of transport at Antarctica.
Located on the southwest peninsula, our first destination was the Paradise Bay. True to its name, the landscape of this area was absolutely surreal comprising spectacular mountain scenery, glacial faces and a variety of wildlife. Capturing the breathtaking panorama was a delight in itself. With the pristine iceberg as the backdrop, I also noticed a Weddell seal lying on the ice and staring intently towards my camera. It was a picture-perfect moment waiting to be captured. Adding to the cuteness quotient were the funny Gentoo penguins who had taken over an Argentinian abandoned Base Brown in Paradise Bay. I also spotted a very rare Leopard seal resting on a floating ice sheet here.
Port Lockroy is a wonderland for bird enthusiasts. It is the nesting haven for Gentoo penguins and Snowy Sheathbills. While I was here, I even witnessed few Gulls and Antarctic Skuas, who are frequent visitors to this port. The port previously had a British base which has now been converted into a museum and a working post office. Every year during the austral summer months, it is the residence of four women cum guides who give the passing visitors a tour of this place. Most of the current research here revolves around the local Gentoo penguin population and observing the impact of humans on their environment. Half the island is open to tourists, while the other half is reserved for penguins.
DECEPTION ISLAND – WHALERS BAY
Meanwhile, ranking amongst one of the most unique ecosystems on earth, Deception Island, an active volcano in the South Shetland Island was next on our list. Can you imagine a charcoal painting that has come to life? Well, that’s the ideal way I can describe the breathtakingly beautiful black and white landscape of Deception Island- Whalers Bay. Situated in the South Shetland Islands archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula, the island mainly consists of volcanic ash and ice that composes a very pretty picture. The island has a protected harbour, with only a narrow opening through which ships may pass, and it was used extensively by early whalers in the past.
HALF MOON ISLAND
Located north of Burgas Peninsula, the 420-acre crescent-shaped island is the home of Chinstrap penguins. It’s quite an experience watching hordes of penguins during their nesting period. There is an annual Stone Stealing ritual that is intrinsic to these species. Instead of picking their own stones to make nests, few lazy penguins choose to steal and pass it off as their own.
Other than these major attractions, I also visited the Cuverville Island, Orne Harbour, Neko Harbour Wilhelmina Bay, Cierva Cove and Mikkelsen Harbour. Each one of these regions is stunning, taking my love and respect towards nature several notches above. In my six days of stay around the Peninsula, I realized Antarctica has various facets to it. From deserts and volcanoes to icy locales and beaches, the place has myriad locations that are absolutely magical and synonymous with the place.
Truly, a photographer’s dream—one that I wish to live in, year after year!
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