The 2016 Emperor Penguins Expedition Report

In November of 2016 I lead a new expedition to a remote area of Antarctica to camp on the sea ice and photograph Emperor Penguins. The genesis of this expedition began a little over four years ago when I decided I wanted to set about photographing one of the large Emperor Penguin colonies living on the sea ice in a remote area of Antarctica. It took four years of planning, including a scouting trip last year before our expedition group would finally arrive on the frozen sea ice and get the opportunity to photograph the world’s largest and most difficult to reach penguin, the mighty Emperor. I have mostly included only behind the scenes photographs in this trip report to try and give a good sense of what the expedition was like. To see the full portfolio of images from this expedition please visit my website at www.jholko.comDisembarking the Russian IlyushianemperorsmapThere are plenty of species the world over that are much harder to find than Emperor Penguins.  To my knowledge however, none is as difficult or as expensive to reach as the Emperor Penguin; and thats the conundrum of Emperor Penguin photography. We know exactly where they are located, we just cant get to them without great difficulty and significant expense. Living on the sea ice in remote and difficult to reach areas of Antarctica the Emperor Penguin is therefore as difficult to reach as the enigmatic snow leopard is to locate in the wilds of its mountainous territories. It is an odd problem for wildlife photographers to recognise and accept that we know exactly where our subject is located but that we just cant get to it.After months of anticipation, our expedition began with the five of us meeting in the small town of Punta Arenas in Chile at the bottom of South America. Expectations and hopes were high and we were all buzzing with excitement at the prospect of getting underway. Our plan involved taking a flight on a Russian Ilyushin cargo aircraft and landing on the blue ice of Union Glacier in the deep interior of Antarctica at approximately 79º south. We had planned to depart on or around the 7th of November depending on the prevailing weather. Once at Union Glacier we would establish a camp from which we would take a twin-otter aircraft equipped with skis out to the remote sea ice in Gould Bay where we would establish our advance camp around 1.5 kilometres from the Emperor Penguin colony (and around ten miles from the ice edge). We would then commute by walking on the sea ice to the colony for photography during the small hours of the night when the sun was at its lowest and the light at its softest.emperorsexpedition2016-19435-editantarcticaunionglacier-01660As is often the case, the best laid plans can easily go astray and we were delayed for approximately five days in Punta Arenas waiting for the winds to drop and a suitable weather window when we could depart and safely land on the ice. When we finally received the call and positive news that the winds had dropped sufficiently at the glacial ice runway we high tailed it to the airport and within a couple of hours we were in the air and on our way south to the interior of Antarctica. The flight time from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier was approximately four hours. antarcticaunionglacier-02027antarcticaunionglacier-01755The Ilyushin cargo aircraft is equipped with military jump seats, little insulation and few feature comforts; making the ride exciting and far removed from the average commercial flight. Landing at Union Glacier on blue glacial ice is a surreal experience that is unmatched by any other flight I have ever experienced. When the rear cargo door of the big Ilyushin swings open and you step down onto Antarctic blue ice that is approximately a kilometre thick at the point of touchdown there is a real visceral thrill. Temperatures out on the blue ice were around -20º Celsius with wind chill on our landing. We took the opportunity to photograph the plane whilst all the luggage and supplies were unloaded before it took off for its return flight to Punta Arenas (The Ilyushin has to turn around as quickly as possible due to the risk of the plane and engines icing). We then loaded up the specially modified super jeeps and made our way across the glacier to basecamp. After a short unplanned stop to dig ourselves out of a deep snow drift we arrived at our basecamp location.emperorsexpedition2016-14203Sea Ice Fuel Stop on the way to Gould BayWith basecamp established we now needed a second weather window with sufficient visibility for us to take off from Union Glacier and then land on the sea ice at Gould Bay. After a couple of days at basecamp (during which time we took the opportunity to explore a little and do some landscape photography) visibility was finally improving and we were able to load up the twin-otter plane and make the three hour flight from Union Glacier out to the remote sea ice at Gould Bay.  We made a quick stop for fuel at a pre-prepared fuel cache on the sea ice and landed at our planned destination on the sea ice in the early afternoon. The sea ice at our chosen camp site was approximately 2.5 metres thick and extended ten miles from where we were camped out to open water (a distance the Penguins commute for fishing on a daily basis). We quickly set about establishing camp and devouring a hot meal before we prepared to walk the 1.5 kilometres across the sea ice to the main penguin colony for a night of stunning photography. We used sleds to carry our gear which we dragged behind us across the ice. This is actually far easier than it sounds and even fully laden with camera gear the sleds slide with relative ease across the ice.Hike across the ice to the Emperor ColonyEmperors Going Fishing_dsc8024The sun never sets this far south in Antarctica during the summer months so we planned to do most of our photography during the night hours when the sun was at its lowest and the light at its softest. This plan proved fruitful with some really dramatic golden light and back-lit blowing snow that lasted for hours and hours at a time. We spent hour after hour photographing the penguins during the midnight sun and I confess that I completely lost track of time during these sessions. It wasn’t until fatigue and hunger set in that I would glance at my watch and realise we had been photographing for more than five hours; at which point I realised I could no longer feel my fingers. Temperatures averaged around -20º Celsius with wind chill with only our last evening being warmer at around -8º Celsius.2016-1113-gouldbay-1844Click the image below for behind the scenes video.emperor-video-2I felt we were extremely fortunate to have really consistent 20-25 knot winds during our time on the sea ice which made camping and commuting to the colony difficult but proved absolutely superb for photography (we had to dig our tents out several times a day to prevent them from being buried under the snow). With strong winds and blowing snow the Emperors and their chicks were often plastered with snow which made for very emotive and dramatic photography. The opportunities for back-lit blowing snow were superb and everyone in the group made some absolutely incredible images during our time with the Emperors. jar20161114_154430Getting down low with Emperorsjar20161113_234163Click the image below for behind the scenes video.emperorvideo4In the early hours of the morning, when we had tired and could no longer tolerate the cold, wind or hunger took over we would hike the 1.5 kilometres back to our mountain tents for a meal and some warming drinks.  We would then grab a few hours shut eye before breakfast and more photography sessions with the penguins.Penguins on an ice pressure ridgeemperorsexpedition2016-20569-editCamping with the Emperors is a life changing experience. Listening to their calls above the wind as they waddle and belly slide slowly past your tent on their march to the ocean to fish for their chicks is surreal to say the least. For me, the experience moved me deeply and bought me closer to Nature than I think I have ever felt. It also bought me a greater appreciation of how special and precious Antarctica (indeed all wildlife) truly is. I don’t want to turn my trip report into a spiel about global warming, global over population and our planets destruction (I think we all know we are well and truly on that path), but I do want to take a moment and ask you to please head on over to Penguin World when you finish reading this report and to please consider a small tax deductible donation to this worthwhile NGO project.

Click the image below for behind the scenes video.emperorvideo3emperorsexpedition2016-19594On occasion we had to walk no further than a few metres from our tents to photograph lines of Emperors coming and going on their way to the ocean. Everyone in our group took the opportunity to make photographs whenever the chance arose (which was often). I think we each only slept a few hours a day in total; although I don’t really remember as that part of the expedition already seems somewhat of a blur. The constant daylight and 20-25 knot winds whipping the mountain tents around makes sleep somewhat more difficult than usual. Thankfully though, the tents themselves are solar heated by the 24 hour sun and as such are actually quite warm inside. During the day I found I only needed a base layer of marino wool to stay warm in my tent. Anything else was too hot.

Click the image below for behind the scenes video.emperorvideo1Changing lenses was pretty much impossible because of the flying snow and high winds on the sea ice (I tried it once and ended up with a camera and lens full of snow) so I chose to shoot with two cameras (2 x Canon EOS 1DX MKII) pretty much the entire time. Although I took my 600mm F4L IS MKII lens I only used it on two occasions and in both instances I could have simply walked closer and used something shorter. By far my most used lens was the 300mm F2.8L IS MKII and the 11-24mm F4L. I also shot with the 70-200mm F2.8L IS MKII and made a few images with the 85mm F1.2L MKII. Having now had the experience of camping on the sea ice with the Emperors I would not bother with the 600mm F4 Lens. Quite honestly I could go back with just the 300mm F2.8L IS MKII and the 11-24mm F4L or 16-35mm F4L and be completely content with that selection. Two of the other photographers with me shot extensively with the new 100-400mm F4.5-5.6L IS MKII lens and found this worked extremely well for them. There were no camera failures during the expedition, although I managed to get both my 1DX MKIII cameras so frozen on occasion that I could no longer turn the top or bottom dials (although the shutter kept firing without a problem). This problem is caused by snow hitting the camera and then melting under warm fingers before it runs into the side of the dials where it refreezes almost instantly. The key to avoiding this problem is to turn the dials frequently to prevent too much ice from building up. I spent a lot of time lying in the snow to be at eye level with the penguins so found this more of an issue than others on the expedition. The Sony camera on the expedition fared surprisingly well only suffering from the need for regular battery changes because of its small power cell. By comparison I only needed one battery charge per day in each 1DX MKII camera.Frozen Canon EOS 1DX MKII w/ Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS MKIIemperorsexpedition2016-20062-editI had arranged for a small step ladder to be taken down with us to our camp on the sea ice with the idea that we could use it to get some height over the colony. The idea I feel was a good one, but in practice it was impossible due to the winds. Any effort to erect and climb a ladder would have met with disaster so we had to make do as best we could in this respect. In practice it wasn’t really an issue I was able to find some pressure ridges to climb near the colony to get the required height. After four days of camping with the Emperors we made the decision to take advantage of a weather window to reverse engineer ourselves back to Union Glacier and back onto Punta Arenas. Union Glacier itself provides a plethora of landscape photographic opportunities and it was great to also take advantage of our time there to create some really dramatic images of the interior of Antarctica. emperorsexpedition2016-19461-editThe interior of Antarctica is a magnificent white landscape that is very much an untapped jewel for photographers. Only a small handful of photographers ever visit and photograph the interior of Antarctica. By comparison approximately thirty thousand people visit the peninsula of Antarctica annually.  As such, in 2018 I plan to lead a second expedition to both the remote frozen sea ice and the interior of Antarctica for both the Emperor Penguins and the interior landscapes of Antarctica. We will use snow mobiles to access some of the incredible interior features including fields of blue ice, giant wind scoops, beautiful snow patterns, spectacular mountain ranges and much more. The expedition is also going to include an option for aerial photography of the spectacular and dramatic Mount Vinson Massif (the tallest mountain in Antarctica) and surrounding mountains. You can register your interest in this unique expedition by dropping me an email and I will keep you updated as logistics progress. There is no obligation at this point. I have mostly included behind the scenes photographs in this trip report. To see the full portfolio of images from this expedition please visit my website at

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