In late November 2022, I led a once-in-a-lifetime photographic expedition experience deep into Antarctica to photograph the world’s largest and most difficult-to-reach Penguin – The Emperor. I have written extensively before on the difficulties in reaching the Emperor penguin. It is one of the true ironies of wildlife photography. Knowing exactly where your subject is located but having an incredibly time-consuming, expensive, and difficult time getting there. Other than the elusive white wolf of Ellesmere Island, I know of no other wildlife so difficult to get to.
This expedition was for a limited number of just seven photographers plus leader. The expedition was originally supposed to run in November 2020, but the pandemic saw us delayed until 2022. Just as an aside, I am almost completely caught up now on workshops and expeditions (after Mongolia in January of 2023). I will have an extensive 2022 retrospective and 2023 What’s in Store blog post (and probably podcast) as we get closer to the end of the year.
An expedition such as this, to the remote sea ice of Gould Bay in the Weddell sea and the world’s most southerly Emperor Penguin colony, is no small undertaking, requiring a feat of logistical engineering that would easily rival any major construction project. There is a very significant number of additional staff required to pull off this feat that, includes meteorologists, medics, chefs, kitchen hands, pilots, co-pilots, airline staff, super jeep drivers, camp organizers, mountain guides, operations teams, etc. The list goes on for quite some time. To try and put a number on it is difficult, but there are around sixty staff working at Union Glacier and not less than an additional five out at the remote Gould Bay camp to support this expedition. The camp at Gould Bay includes a camp leader, chef and kitchen hand, and two mountain guides. Add all of that up, and you get some insight into why this expedition costs more than most small cars.
Our expedition began with our arrival in Chile, South America. On arrival in Punta Arenas, I succumbed to some of the worst jet lag I have experienced in living memory. I may well have jinxed myself with my recent podcast on how I deal with jet lag. I think I knew deep down I was going to have issues with jet lag on this trip. The large time difference between Australia and South America, the long layover in Santiago, followed by an additional long delay on the flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas meant my body clock was a complete mess by the time I arrived at my hotel in Punta Arenas at 3:30am.
Mercifully, we had the better part of a week in Punta Arenas for me to recover whilst we waited for a suitable weather window for the flight down to Union Glacier, deep in Antarctica. Whilst we bided our time, some of us took the opportunity to visit a private farm about an hour’s drive from Punta Arenas, where we photographed the mighty Andean condor as it soared on high winds late in the day. Around thirty pairs of South America’s largest bird regularly roost here, making it an ideal location to photograph this giant bird.
Flights down to Antarctica are always a roller coaster of delays. Unpredictable weather and the lack of a proper runway and infrastructure means the conditions need to be just about perfect to land a jet on the naturally occurring blue ice at Union Glacier. This year we flew down on a privately chartered Iceland Air 757 instead of the venerable Russian cargo plane. Quite honestly, this was a godsend of comfort and luxury compared to the agricultural Illushyian.
Once in Antarctica, we landed on the blue-ice ice runway, about six miles from our camp. Transfer from the landing location to basecamp is via specially modified super jeeps with 44” tires. From our base camp, only 600 nautical miles from the South Pole, we then took a Basler ski-equipped aircraft to the remote Emperor Penguin colony on the sea ice, a flight of approximately two and a half hours. The Basler is larger than a Twin-Otter and capable of higher speed (the Twin-Otter takes approximately three and a half hours). We decided on arrival in Union Glacier to immediately fly down to Gould Bay in the available weather window. This made for a long day (arriving around midnight on the sea ice), but meant we were on location and ready to photograph the following day. The conditions on arrival were simply outstanding, and almost the entire group went straight out and photographed until approximately 3:30am in the morning in some wonderful blowing snow and midnight sunlight. Our Basler aircraft and crew remained on station for our entire duration on the sea ice in case the ice began to break up, and we had to evacuate quickly.
From our base camp on the sea ice, we spent days photographing the Emperors and Emperor Penguin Chicks against a backdrop of small icebergs and pressure ridges. We generally photographed in three dedicated sessions per day at the main colony. Between 9:30am and 1pm, then a short break for lunch, then from 2:30pm until 7:30pm with a break for dinner, and then from approximately 9:30pm until 03:00am. Upon which we would collapse into our mountain tents for a few hours of sleep before beginning again. Although this is a punishing schedule that quickly leads to exhaustion, it maximizes the photographic time on the ice with the Penguins. Of course, all sessions are optional, and many of us took some downtime when conditions were less than ideal. This year the main colony was a walk of only twenty-five minutes from camp, which made for a quick and easy commute. Emperor Penguins regularly walked through our campsite on their way to the ice edge and could be heard shuffling and calling outside our tents throughout the day and night.
For those of you interested in some ancillary information. The ice under our camp is multi-year sea ice and, according to my GPS, approximately 9 feet thick. The camp was approximately forty kilometers from the ice edge, a commute the penguins make on foot every few days in search of food. Watching them make the long journey across the sea ice as they waddle or slowly slide on their bellies is mesmerizing. This year there were no nearby open leads for the Penguins to easily access the ocean and, thus, no opportunity to photograph the Penguins leaping from the water.
Of the four different lenses I took with me for this expedition (see packing for Antarctica), the RF 400mm f2.8L IS, RF 85mm f1.2L IS, and RF 70-200mm f2.8L IS were my most utilized in that order. I probably shot 75% of my photographs with the 400mm and barely touched the 14-35mm, preferring to single out individuals rather than focus on the entire colony. The colony itself is amazing to sit and watch but can be difficult to make sense of photographically. Penguin chicks run amok through the colony, chased by concerned parents, whilst other penguins shuffle around with zero respect for photographic composition. It is my experience that it is generally the periphery of the colony that provides the best photographic opportunities. There is a lot to be said for a telephoto zoom lens, and for my 2024 expedition, I will definitely pack the RF 100-500mm lens. Those participants who took this lens used it almost exclusively. I was also excited to try Canon’s mighty new RF 1200mm f8L IS lens (my thanks to VJ). 1200mm is an awful lot of focal length, but it offers a unique opportunity to maximize telephoto compression and squash up Penguin subjects against distant blue ice. Conditions need to be ideal to deploy this lens as 1200mm always means there are a lot of air molecules between the lens and subject, and those molecules need to be free from heat haze or ice crystals (or blowing snow).
There has been a lot of misinformation dissipated on the internet about the new Canon RF 1200mm F8L IS lens. Many forum posts claim it is nothing more than a 600mm F4 with a 2 X teleconverter welded on the end of it. From direct experience, I can assure you this is simply not the case. The additional optics at the rear of the lens are indeed there to extend the focal length to 1200mm, but they are precision optics custom tailored specifically to the lens; they are not the same optics in the generic 2 X teleconverter. As such, this lens behaves very differently from a 600mm F4 lens with a 2 X converter. It acquires focus faster, has improved optical quality (over a 600mm f4 with a 2 x converter), and tracks the subject more accurately. Is this difference worth the steep price of admission over a 600mm F4 with a 2 X converter? Only your wallet and your need to shoot at 1200mm can answer that.
With our time at Gould Bay drawing to a close, we packed up our camp and departed around lunchtime for Union Glacier. Our flight back from Gould Bay to Union Glacier was smooth and uneventful. We were hopeful of spending just one night in Union Glacier; however, we were delayed by a full day due to a savage Antarctic storm that ripped through Union Glacier with winds gusting in excess of 48 knots (around 27 meters per second). The storm hit a few hours after we landed and raged through the night and most of the next day.
With winds finally abating, we took advantage of another small weather window to fly the four hours back to Punta Arenas and conclude our expedition. A visit to the world’s most southerly Emperor penguin colony is truly a life-changing experience. The ability to live (camp) with the penguins provides an unparalleled photographic experience that rates as one of the very best in the world in my experience.
I will next be returning to the Emperors for a sold-out expedition in November 2024, but am now taking expressions of interest for 2025. If you are excited about traveling to one of the remotest regions in Antarctica to live and photograph with the majestic Emperor Penguins, please drop me an email to register your interest (no obligation at this point).