Antarctica: Cuverville Island

Sunday 5 March

After 2 and a half days at sea it was finally happening, our first expedition day in Antarctica. The crossing of the Drake Passage had been far from boring. We’d had so much to learn in the talks and even more in the photography program. There was also plenty of time to try and get my head (and fingers) around the additional camera I had been loaned, and all those impressive seabirds to practice on.

A few of the photographers from my group had grand plans to catch an Antarctic sunrise. So, despite being extremely tired, I set my alarm for 5.30am to make sure I didn’t miss it.

Being in a windowless cabin, I didn’t have to option of peeking outside to check whether there were clouds or not. By the time I had all my warm gear on and had wandered into the passage ways to check for clouds, I figured I was committed and would keep going. The lounges were deserted, everyone else was too silly to be up at this time.

The morning light…..

Up on the back deck there was a heavy coating of snow! A couple of fellow photographers had made it out and while there was heavy cloud we were rewarded with some dramatic skies and a few hints of colour.

We were anchored near Cuverville Island, our expedition stop for the morning and it was very still and incredibly beautiful. Our first Antarctic mountain-scapes.

We had the WWF onboard for our cruise, tagging and researching whales. Their flag was flying for the duration of our journey. We’d already seen plenty of whales in the Drake Passage crossing and while I was out on the front deck shooting mountains, another put on a display right in front of us.

The scenery from every side of the ship was breathtaking. Despite the clouds, it was definitely worth being up early. There were only a couple of other idiots with cameras freezing our butts off and enjoying the serenity.

A breakfast with views….

By 6.30am I’d concluded that was about as good as it was going to get regarding sunrises. At the time I was fairly disappointed that I hadn’t managed to get any fabulous sunrise shots, but was not disappointed in the scenery. It turns out that now I’ve had a chance to edit the photos, the beautiful and dramatic morning was well captured!

Mum had found me up on deck and we decided to head down to breakfast as I was in need of food and warming up. It was a breakfast with views this morning…..

The excitement in the dining room was high. No one cold wait to get out amongst those icebergs. We had a little time before our standby call so I headed back out on deck with Mum to check out more of Cuverville Island, now the sun was well and truly up.

I have no idea why I didn’t have my beanie, coat or gloves on for this foray outside, it was definitely sub-zero! We couldn’t get enough of the scenery in our first stop on the Antarctic Peninsula.

It was go time…..

During the expeditions, groups are called down in ‘mudroom groups’. I was in the photo group and in general we always went out first, along with the media crews. Seakayakers were also at the start, if it was calm enough for them to go out. The remaining guests (the bulk of the ship) were divided into 8 other mudroom groups, and rotated order for going out.

Our photo group was on standby for 8am so it was back to my cabin, ski pants and a thousand layers on, and camera bag ready to go before heading down to the mudroom.

Being first in the mudroom had definite advantages, plenty of space to get everything on and with 15 of us in the 2 photo zodiacs, there was a crap-ton of camera and video gear going with us. While we’d had a practice run of putting on our Gill jackets and boots, this was the first time for real.

For my first foray outside I’d settled on leggings under my ski pants (waterproof pants were compulsory although some people strangely didn’t wear them and ended up cold and wet); a merino base-layer; a fleece; puffer jacket; neck buff; 2 pairs of wools socks (1 thick and 1 thin), beanie and 2 layers of gloves (merino liners under photography gloves). Then the Gill jacket goes over the top, boots go on, with pants over the top of the boots and your key tag gets clipped inside your jacket pocket so we could be scanned on and off the ship. Your life jacket then goes over the top of the jacket. By the 8th expedition we had this down pat but the first time around there was a bit of fluffing about.

The mudroom is a pleasant temperature, until you are geared up, and then it’s a sauna! Finally we were called down the corridor, to the side gates, and were scanned out. We’d been over the biosecurity protocols the day before. One by one we stepped into the bucket of virkon, boots thoroughly cleaned, and out and down to the zodiac. You hand your bag to an able seaman and use a sailor’s grip from the zodiac driver or able seaman to step into the zodiac – not so bad when the ocean is calm but more challenging in bumpy seas. You then quickly park your butt on the edge of the zodiac and your gear bag is handed to you, ready for the next person.

Our zodiac drivers were always our 2 photo guides and this morning I was with Simon. Our boat was loaded and off we went……

Cruising around Cuverville…

Cameras were out and we started shooting the icebergs and dramatic skies around Cuverville Island.

Half the boats do a zodiac cruise while the other half go to shore, before swapping. There is a strict cap of 100 allowed on land at any time.

We were zodiac cruising first and getting used to managing camera gear in a bobbing zodiac, in sub-zero temperatures and trying to take good pictures. Several of us were also using Sony cameras, unfamiliar to us, so expedition 1 was a learning curve! I was using my Nikon D750 with wide-angle lens to shoot landscapes and the Sony Alpha 7 Mark IV with a 100-400m lens to try and get those close up shots of the wildlife and birds. I was also attempting to shoot some video on my Fuji XS010. All with frozen fingers and trying not to put anything down!

Icebergs everywhere….

There was a level of frustration among several of us with trying to get used to new cameras and figuring out controls in less than ideal conditions. Every single one of us though was in awe of the scenes in front of us. At the time I was fairly sure none of my pictures were going to do it justice.

It’s hard to appreciate the size of the icebergs until you see a ship or zodiac next to them!
The ice is such fabulous and varied colours too. The bluer it is the older it is, often thousands of years……

Seabirds, penguins and seals…..

The birds were plentiful again. We spotted several Antarctic terns.

Simon took the zodiacs into close to the shore so we could get some wildlife shots. Our first Gentoo penguins and an Antarctic Fur seal, hanging out on rocks.

Moulting Gentoo penguins on the rocks were everywhere. We could see all the penguin colonies on shore but got an opportunity to shoot these ones from the zodiac. We also found some Antarctic Shags (Comorants), happy to let us observe them quietly with our lenses.

One of the highlights of all our expeditions was watching the penguin antics. It was like watching squabbling children at times….. and a lazy cat in the sun at others!

The Antarctic fur seals were huge, and lazy! They would open one eye and then just close it and go back to sleep.

We had 2 zodiacs in our photo group. Andrew was the driver for the other group, this morning. All the cameras were getting a good workout!

Penguins, penguins everywhere! They are just black and white dots littering the hills. All those penguins produce a lot of poop, and the pink colour in the ice is from penguin poo!

Between cruising around capturing penguins doing their thing, we got to see the Antarctic Shags take flight from their rocky outcrops.

We’d now been cruising in the zodiacs for almost an hour and my hands were cold, even with 2 layers of gloves. It was worth every second though as the wildlife was fascinating.

The long lens was definitely coming in handy. You can’t get too close to the animals and birds, so figuring out the best way to shoot from a distance was key.

Just before we headed to shore, we found an Antarctic fur seal climbing out onto rocks. I love how their fur becomes so slick and glossy with the water…..

Then another whale sighting! We weren’t close enough to get good shots, but we definitely made up for that at other times during the trip.

Setting foot ashore….

Our zodiac cruised into shore and we had our first go at getting out, wading through icy water on slippery rocks, while not dropping expensive camera gear! So far so good, but it had started to snow….

There were penguins, penguins everywhere! Today it was just Gentoos, but my they are cute.

Bad hair days…..

Many of the penguins were still moulting, which meant an array of hair styles. Often hilarious! We also spied some bigger babies, also cute and fluffy!

Mum’s group had also made it onshore. She was easy for me spot with her bright aqua ski pants! We checked out the penguins together, fascinated by their antics.

A parade of penguins……….

It was surreal finally standing amongst colonies of penguins, in Antarctica! They are very unfussed about our presence. It’s often a challenge to keep the required distance and you have to retreat backwards as they waddle towards you.

I was getting rather cold on the zodiac so it had been a welcome relief to walk around a bit. The increasingly heavy snow was not helping with the temperature of my hands though! The penguins were definitely equiped for the weather and seem entirely unfazed by the snow and icy wind.

It turns out this was one of the few times Mum and I ended up on shore together so I was glad she could get some shots of me getting the penguin shots!

Meanwhile Mum was snapping away with her phone, lighter than my camera arrangement but she still got some cute photos and video.

Almost a blizzard….

We followed the marked trails to go and investigate a lazy Antarctic fur seal. Yep it was cold! The seal was more than happy just laying around in the snow, like it was a beach on a tropical island. Penguins dancing around it.

My fingers were frozen and arms aching from holding all the camera gear (there is no option of putting anything down). But how could I not be grinning, with these gorgeous creatures showing off in front of me?

The snow was pretty heavy by now but it definitely felt Antarctic!

It was close on a white-out and there was so much snow on the cameras it was getting hard to get clear shots (thankgoodness for weather sealed gear!).

We were all called back to the zodiacs for the return to the ships. I couldn’t feel my fingers any more but the penguins were showing us how Antarctica was done!

The trip back on the Zodiac was snowy and cold! We’d definitely had the best of the weather for our zodiac cruise.

Warming up and checking out those photos…….

Once we reversed the gearing-up process, and the mudroom was now full of wet gear, everyone was gathering in the various lounges to talk about our morning adventures and check out each others photos. As I excitedly dumped my SD cards onto my laptop, we warmed up with coffee and fresh bikkies. The grins were a plenty as we checked out our photos. I’ll admit with the snow and frozen fingers, I had very little idea of what I’d captured from my few glimpses at the back of the camera. Despite the challenges I was pretty confident I’d got some decent shots!

Mum had a great time and also got some excellent photos. All hungry it was off to lunch to fuel up before the afternoon expedition.

It was only 1 expedition in but Antarctica had not disappointed. Not even close! The afternoon had Chiriguano Bay and a zodiac cruise in store for us.

Up next…..

An amazing afternoon in Chiriguano Bay. So beautiful and so much wildlife up close and personal!

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