JHP Newsletter - 2006, No. 2, 8 March
I've recently returned from a month-long trip to Antarctica, and this lengthy newsletter is based on that experience. It begins with reviews of the Epson P-4000 and the LowePro Photo Trekker Classic, and ends with a report on the trip itself. Enjoy!
Equipment: Epson P-4000
In preparation for my trip to Antarctica, I bought an Epson P-4000. It's a handheld unit for downloading and displaying images. I got it as a way to obtain "unlimited" field storage instead of buying some more CF cards in order to let me shoot wildlife action all day with my Canon EOS 1Ds Mk II. It was a tough decision because I didn't want to have something else to mess with in the field. It's so easy to open up my CF wallet, take the shot card out of the camera body and put it in the wallet, put a new card from the wallet into the body, put the CF wallet away (in a jacket or pants pocket), and continue shooting. I finally decided to get the P-4000 largely because it would be possible to download from the CF cards while in the field and then copy the data to my laptop in one, hopefully faster, process later, and also because it would act as a backup hard drive for my laptop.
During testing prior to the trip, I discovered that the P-4000 wouldn't fit into my work flow as nicely as I thought it would. First, the P-4000 is slow! It takes 12 min 15 sec to download a full 2 GB card (180 images) to the P-4000, whereas it only takes 4 min 53 sec to download the same data through a USB 2 reader to my PowerBook laptop. The good news is that it only takes 2 min 53 sec to get the same data from the P-4000 to the PowerBook, so in theory, the "in-the-office" download time to the laptop is shorter via the P-4000. Second, the data downloaded from the CF cards is in a different directory tree on the P-4000 than the "PC data" directory where albums (or "directories") can be created on, and uploaded from, an external computer. So, in order to use the P-4000 as a backup hard drive to mirror the data stored on my laptop, the data must be moved from the download directories to the "PC data" directories. That's easy to do with a synchronization program on my laptop, but it means that more data has to be shuffled around than is really necessary because the download data has to be synched to the laptop, manually moved to the regular storage directory (just a file pointer change on the laptop, and is similar to the work I would normally do when downloading a CF card directly to the laptop), then synched back to the P-4000 where the original download data on it gets deleted as the "new" backup data gets written in the "PC data" directory. (Moving the data via the P-4000 is a painful process because it must be physically copied from the download directories to an already-created directory in the "PC data" area, then the download data has to be deleted.) I didn't do any timing tests, but it appears that the P-4000 is noticeably slower when acting as a hard drive than my usual USB 2-powered 2.5-in external hard drives. It also created some interesting synching features because the laptop sometimes thought that data had been modified on the P-4000 even though it really hadn't, so I ended up copying good data from the P-4000 back to the laptop several times slowing up the synching process.
In the field, I never came close to filling up my CF cards, and never used the P-4000 to download data mainly because I didn't want to have to take the time to get out the P-4000, wait for it to wake up, then start the process to download a card. So for this trip, the P-4000 was a frustrating, expensive gadget to haul around.
It's nice for downloading and viewing images, and possibly also for doing some basic editing, in a small, self-contained, portable unit. However, it doesn't mesh with my established workflow that's based on using Capture One on a laptop to edit images, and I'm not sure I'll keep it.
Equipment: LowePro Photo Trekker Classic
The LowePro Photo Trekker Classic backpack I bought for the Antarctica trip worked well. It's larger than the LowePro Nature Trekker AW and smaller than the LowePro Pro Trekker AW backpacks that I have. It's sized to be airline carry-on compliant (the Pro Trekker AW is larger than suggested international limits), and is just big enough to carry the gear I needed for the trip. The main compartment held one body (the second body was shipped in the checked luggage and kept in my cabin), the 16-35, 24-105, and 120-300 zooms, the 500, and the P-4000. The external unpadded compartment held a flash (in a lightly-padded case), filters, and other miscellaneous items. (While shooting, I kept one Hakuba CF card wallet and a 1.4x II converter in my coat pocket, and a second Hakuba CF card wallet, that I only needed once, in an inside pocket of the Photo Trekker.) The suspension system of the Classic isn't as sophisticated as the ones on the AW models, but that makes the pack lighter and smaller, and it was sufficient for the amount of wearing and carrying I did. One thing the Classic doesn't have that the AW models do have is the All-Weather cover. That wasn't a problem on most days as the Classic shrugged off the short periods of light rain and also the splashes of seawater in the Zodiacs. However, it was a problem one afternoon when we had light rain for about 2.5 hours. The water penetrated the outer shell, and I was glad to have the next day to dry it out in the cabin. The 500 attached to the 1Ds Mk II was exposed to about two of those rainy hours with no protective cover and survived with no difficulties at all. So, water penetrating the Classic to create a damp inner compartment probably wasn't really a camera equipment issue but rather more of a personal-comfort issue because I didn't like the feel of the soggy padding.
Travel: Antarctica (Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula)
I was part of the month-long Joseph Van Os Ultimate Antarctica photo cruise along with about 80 other participants and about 14 leaders. The name of the tour is slightly misleading because after leaving Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, we spent three and a half days on the Falkland Islands, then six days on South Georgia, then "only" five days around the Antarctic Peninsula before returning to Ushuaia. And because we spent almost ten full days at sea cruising between stops, the trip probably should have been called a cruise through the Southern Ocean with stops at South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Falkland Islands. :) As is typical of trips to Antarctica from South America, we didn't cross the Antarctic Circle, getting only as far south as 65 deg 8 min. The map below shows our approximate route. The basic map is courtesy of http://atlas.gc.ca — of course you would go to The Atlas of Canada, part of the governmental Natural Resources Canada site, for a map of Antarctica. :)
We traveled aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, a Russian research vessel. It was designed to conduct acoustic research (ie, spy on submarines), and is now used for tourism in the Arctic and Antarctic with periods of oceanographic research (legitimate science now) between the tourist seasons. Joe Van Os had the whole ship for the trip, with about 2/3 of the participants going through his photo safari company and the remaining 1/3 through his natural-history company. While the itinerary was generally geared towards good photography, sometimes it appeared that a regular dining schedule took priority. :(
The weather was generally favorable, especially for our extended legs at sea. The crossing from South Georgia to the South Orkney Islands was a bit rough and waves crashed over the bow high enough to reach the bridge about four decks above the waterline! Our crossing of the Drake Passage, from the Antarctic Peninsula to Cape Horn, was unusually smooth. The weather for our landings was mixed. Most days it was overcast which was fine, and even preferable, for shooting isolated wildlife, but really limited the opportunities for landscape work. Only about three of our landing days were good for landscape shooting. Temperatures towards the end of the southern summer were quite balmy. In the Falklands, highs were usually in the upper 40s or lower 50s (8-11°C). In South Georgia, which is at about the same latitude as the Falklands but on the other side of the Antarctic Convergence where the water is considerably colder, highs were in the upper 30s and low 40s (3-8°C). Along the Antarctic Peninsula, highs were still mostly in the 30s (0-3°C).
The Falkland Islands are composed of two main islands and about 420 smaller islands. We made photographic stops at New Island, Carcass Island, and Saunders Island where our primary subjects were the Magellanic penguins, Rockhopper penguins, Black-browed albatross, Blue-eyed shags, and Striated caracara. Weather prevented us from landing on Steeple Jason which has the largest breeding colony of Black-browed albatross and the second largest colony of Rockhopper penguins. We made a short non-photographic stop at Stanley on East Falkland while the Vavilov refueled.
South Georgia (That's the full name — there's no "Island" attached to it.) is one main island surrounded by a few dozen much smaller islands. In 1775, Captain Cook was the first European to land on South Georgia, and claimed the islands for King George III. Later, several sealing and whaling stations were established there. South Georgia is probably most famous as the end of Sir Ernest Shackleton's journey to get help to rescue the other members of his failed Endurance expedition to cross Antarctica in 1914/17. He died in 1922 off Grytviken, one of the whaling stations on South Georgia where he is now buried. We stopped at Salisbury Plain, Prion Island, Royal Bay (Little Moltke Harbor), Fortuna Bay, Grytviken, and Gold Harbor. Weather prevented us from landing at St. Andrews Bay, the site of a large King penguin colony in a spectacular setting, and at a Macaroni penguin colony (I think at another part of Royal Bay.). However, we were able to go for a Zodiac ride along the Macaroni colony, and I got some decent shots.
We had a very interesting stop at the Wandering albatross colony on Prion Island. Wandering albatross have the largest wingspan of any bird, up to 11.5 ft (3.5 m). As we were waiting for one adult on a nest to do something interesting, like stretch its wings or call, so we could get something other than a basic portrait, a younger adult flew in and made a crash landing. Instead of gracefully coming to a stop just as its feet touched down, it still had a lot of forward momentum, and after a couple of steps it did a face plant (see below, left).
Our main focus, no pun intended, on South Georgia was King penguins. They are similar to the Emperor penguins found on Antarctica and made famous through the movie March of the Penguins. Kings, the second largest penguin species, stand 30 in (76 cm) whereas the Emperors stand 42-44 in (106-111 cm). These gregarious penguins are quite curious and will come right up to see what you are doing. We spent two days at Salisbury Plain, the location of a large King penguin colony (see below, right). They claim personal space on open ground by standing just beyond pecking distance from their neighbors. It's quite amusing to watch a penguin make a mad dash through the colony avoiding the pecks.
Because King penguins take about 14 months to raise a single chick (54-55 days to incubate the egg and 11-12 months to rear the chick), each pair will generally breed twice every three years laying an egg early the first year, late the second year, and none the third. They don't build nests, and keep the egg and young chick warm by carrying it around on the top of their feet (see below, center). The second-season chicks are as tall as their parents, but their down coats make them look twice as wide (see below, right).
Probably the funniest wildlife interaction I've ever witnessed occurred on Salisbury Plain at the edge of the massive King penguin colony. A penguin pair was standing by themselves and snoozing on a grassy clearing shared by some young fur seals. One of the fur seals charged over to the penguins and pushed the first penguin into the second. The second fell down, and when it quickly picked itself up, it overcorrected and fell over the other direction.
Elephant seals also breed on South Georgia, and we saw young males and females (see below, left). The older males, having finished their business, had left. And now for your $10 word of the day — thigmotactic. Elephant seals, like walruses, are thigmotactic — they like to lay next to each other and maximize the amount of body contact. Most of the mornings on the trip were overcast and uninteresting for landscape work, but one morning the broken clouds created a spectacular scene (below right).
On a rainy landing at Gold Harbor, South Georgia, I hiked up the steep hillside with a handful of other people to shoot a pair of Light-mantled sooty albatross at their nest (see below, left). They have a 7-ft (2.1 m) wingspan. We spent our last morning at South Georgia in Drygalski Fjord where the wind was blowing too strong under the mostly-cloudy sky for us to take a Zodiac cruise through the narrow arm of Larsen Harbor.
On our way to the Antarctic Peninsula, we swung by the South Orkney Islands to cruise through the iceberg graveyard off Laurie Island (see below, right). Huge tabular icebergs break off the Ronne Ice Shelf, and smaller icebergs break off the many glaciers along the eastern shore of the Antarctic Peninsula, and are carried past the South Orkney Islands.
Our first stop at the Antarctic Peninsula was on Paulet Island off the eastern tip. Then we cruised over to Deception Island which is part of the South Shetland Islands just off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Along the way we passed a group of friendly Orca that came right up to the ship. I got some nice shots, but the Orcas in the Southern Ocean appear dirty because they're covered by a layer of brownish algae. Weather (strong winds) prevented us from landing on the outside of Deception Island, so we sought shelter on the inside. You see, Deception Island is volcanic, and a narrow breach in the crater wall (Neptune's Bellows) flooded the caldera creating one of the world's largest natural harbors at about 9 mi (14.5 km) across. As we headed back towards the Antarctic Peninsula across the Bransfield Strait, we were treated to our first spectacular sunset of the trip (see below, left).
Stops at Rongé Island and Port Lockroy on Wiencke Island focused on Gentoo penguin colonies. The little guys, which stand 22-23 in (56-58 cm), are quite funny as they run along the beach on their stubby legs. Mixed with the Gentoos in much smaller numbers were Chinstrap penguins (see below, right). They're about the same size as the Gentoos, and they have a black strap under their chins to hold their black caps in place. :)
I had lots of fun shooting the Gentoo parents feeding their chicks. When it's feeding time, the chick prods the parent by poking the parent's beak and throat (see below, left). When the parent is ready to regurgitate some food, in this case krill, the chick places its mouth up to the parent's mouth so their bills fit together (see below, right). For those of you paying attention to the picture captions, the two shots below were in fact taken in two locations and about seven hours apart — if you've seen one Gentoo feeding its chick, you've seen them all. :)
an Adult to Feed It
After the grueling day of shooting Gentoos, we had a barbeque on the back deck of the ship and were treated to another spectacular sunset as we were parked off Port Lockroy (see below, left). "Parked" is a much better term than "anchored" because we rarely anchored while at the Antarctic Peninsula because of the deep water and instead used a set of thrusters to maintain our position. After cruising south through the scenic Lemaire Channel, we went for a Zodiac ride through the icebergs off Pléneau Island and had a wonderful encounter with a group of about a dozen Crabeater seals playing in the water. This was also where we reached our point furthest south at 65 deg 8 min. On our way back north, we stopped at the unoccupied Argentine research station at Paradise Harbor to "plant the flag" on the peninsula itself under unfavorable photographic conditions. The next morning we stopped at Necko Harbor on the peninsula and were able to shoot under favorable conditions. On an extended Zodiac cruise after the landing at a Gentoo colony there, we had a close encounter with a Minke whale. It also provided an opportunity to shoot some landscape images including one with the Vavilov (see below, right). Then it was back across the Gerlache Strait where we were joined by a small group of playful Humpback whales. Two came right up to the ship, and others far away did fin waves and even breached. Then we headed out across the dreaded Drake Passage between the Antarctic Peninsula and Cape Horn. The passage is noted for its bad weather and treacherous seas, but we had nice weather and a fairly calm crossing to end our cruise.
Take care, and happy shooting.
James Hager Photography :: www.jameshagerphoto.com