Traveling to the end of the world is not an easy task and South Georgia is certainly qualifying for that category. First you need to cross 1850 km of open water through Scotia Sea to get there. A voyage which can be a stormy inferno if the luck is not with you. Thankfully mother nature was kind to me on my trip. Four days of gentle rolling on a fairly smooth sea and there she was: South Georgia, with her 200 kilometers of jagged mountains, glaciers and beaches with wildlife in abundance.
Becoming a wildlife photographer
To depict such a great wilderness in just one trip is like standing underneath The Niagara Falls with and empty Coca Cola bottle and trying to catch as much water as possible. This was a fact I realised almost at once. Now we had 5 days and about 10 landings. The first one was at King Håkon Bay, the location for Ernest Shackelton´s landing after his heroic crossing from Elephant Island in 1916. Now 100 years later our landing was way less dramatic. With everything under control we sat our feet on the ground on November 14th. The place felt very much like Svalbard, but here on steroids. High mountains and a beach full of elephant seals, fur seals and king penguins. For me being a landscape photographer I now had so much wildlife around me that I automatically became a wildlife photographer. In almost every single landscape photograph the wildlife became an ingredient. Typical for South Georgia, instead of trees, there is a thick carpet of tussock grass on the ground. This grass looks fantastic and I used it frequently as foregrounds for my super-wide-angle Milvus 2.8/15 and Milvus 2.8/18 lenses. The mountains and the sky were amazing backgrounds in almost all directions. At King Håkon Bay I found a small pocket of water and two swimming South Georgia Pintail ducks (endemic) and here was another working foreground. I wanted to move a bit further to the front right to get a cleaner view of the water pocket, but there was an grumpy fur seal male just 6m in this direction. This is the way it works on South Georgia and Antarctica. You have to stay at a minimum distance of 5m from the wildlife.
Later in the evening we were hit by a hurricane. The wind speed was a crazy 82 knots. Before the sea really hit us the captain decided to take the ship into shelter in a narrow bay. I slept like a baby during the night and I honestly never understood how bad the weather really was. The result of the storm was heavy swells and therefore we could not make a zodiak landing on Salisbury Plains and the penguin colony the following morning. In stead we steamed south to the whaling stations Leith, Strömnes and Grytviken.
Getting lost in stunning landscapes
The whaling history is a sad chapter of this beautiful island. Between 1904 and 1965. Hundreds of thousands of whales were killed during this period. Some species were almost wiped out to extinction. Thousands of tons of whale oil was extracted from the blubber and shipped to the industrial world as a lubricant. Finally there were almost no whales left and the whaling industry came to an end. The whales are now protected, but have still not recovered from the extensive hunt. In Grytviken I got lost with my cameras on rust and old machinery. Being a former engineer I like old machinery. However the dark history behind the place also gave it a dark framing. In fact these whaling towns were nothing but death factories. Let us hope that the whales will forgive us and that they in a near future will grow back to the numbers of the old days.
Travelling back in time
The miss of the Salisbury Plain landing was easily compensated by a fantastic landing at St. Andrews Bay. The location of the largest king penguin colony in the world. An impressive 250 000 birds were trumpeting to salute us one early morning just before sunrise. This amazing place was like returning back to the time when man had not made any influence on earth and everything was pristine and untouched. However to take in the essence of the scenery and depict it with your camera was almost too big a task. I got so emotional from the display of wildlife and landscape that a tear showed up in the corner of my eye. Penguins were filling out the entire bay which was surrounded by the highest mountains of the island. In the west the highest of them all, Mount Paget with it snowy 2934 meter high peak. We walked up a ridge about 1,5 kilometer away from the landing site and from there we could overlook the whole bay. At sunrise the chicks, thousands of them dressed in a brown down fur, were backlit and their silhouettes were glowing in bright yellow. Simply magnificent! To frame the scene I used the ZEISS Otus 1.4/55 focused on infinity at f/8. The detail on this image is from another planet.
We did a few more landings on the island shooting more wildlife before steaming south-west towards the Antarctic Peninsula. On the way we stopped by at the Argentinian Scientific Base ” Los Orcadas” at South Orkney Islands. A barren place surrounded by high mountains and a steep coastline. Simply one of the most isolated places I have ever visited. The people at the base all needed to have their appendixes taken out before going there. This to prevent problems if an infection would occur. At this location, in the middle of nowhere, there is simply no chance for a quick evacuation if you get severely sick.
From The South Orkneys we followed ”Iceberg Alley”, a stretch of The Southern Ocean where tabular icebergs are lining up one by one. Some icebergs measuring an amazing 1,5 kilometres in length. To shoot these giants is a difficult task though. There are so many components who need to come together to make a great iceberg shot and I can´t say that I made it. It was far more easier to shoot icebergs later on, along the Antarctic Peninsula. The most important condition is calm water. This to get a reflection of the iceberg in the water. Also to see how it continues further down into the deep. A few days later I had a chance to shoot icebergs the conditions I prefer. In both cases with calm seas. First during an absolutely stunning cruise with our ship near Portal Point and later from a zodiac on Cuverville Island.
As often in my case I used wide-angles lenses to get as much space and atmosphere as possible around them. At Cuverville Island I also photographed its gentoo penguin colony. At this early time of the year the ground was still covered by snow. Snow which here was colored red by the poo from the penguins. This colony of thousands of penguins standing in their red poo, surrounded by the cleanest nature on earth, was like a metaphor for a township in Africa.
Before getting into the infamous Drake Passage we stopped by Deception Island. A huge volcanic caldera where you can enter with a ship. Once also a location for a whaling factory. Now the whaling station is abandoned and is decaying in the harsh climate. Here I shot more rusty machines and buildings. Maybe I one day make a book on abandoned places from both Antarctica and the Arctic. I simple love shooting these remains from times before.
Drake Passage – Savage and wild
Drake Passage, the stretch of ocean between the Antarctic Peninsula and mainland South America, is a different animal. A savage and wild one. When entering, you immediately feel that the waves are getting higher and more serious. I must admit, for me being a land crab, it was a bit scary. Gradually the waves build up higher and higher. At the end of this 2 day voyage across the passage they were as high as 10 meters. Thank God we had a good ship and a skilled captain. We cruised right against the monster waves and the speed was reduced to a moderate 4 knots. Now and then the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the boiling sea around us. It was a fantastic display. Never before had I experienced the sea this powerful and beautiful.
Traveling to South Georgia and Antarctica is a long voyage. Often over open waters. A trip where you will get closer to the elements of nature and also to your self. You have to adjust your own pace to the slow speed of the ship and take in the ocean with your senses. The ocean itself is fantastic. Shooting the oceanscapes was something I really enjoyed. Skies, horizons and water surfaces in constant transition. Sometimes the scenes were dramatic and sometimes quiet and subtle. Even the most open seas are sometimes flat and friendly. I specially remember one day when taking the zodiac from Gold Harbour back to the ship. The sky was filled with ”Mackerel Clouds” and they reflected nicely into the calm sea. Instead of returning to the ship we took off towards a single iceberg on the horizon. All of a sudden a flock of swimming king penguins came along the side of our zodiac. They jumped into the air ( the way they breathe ) and plunged back into to calm water again and again. I was in seascape shooting mode, concentrating on the cloud reflections, when the penguins came by and had my new Milvus 2.8/18 wide-angle lens on may camera. Perhaps not the ideal lens for wildlife photography, but now the image became a seascape with a penguin appearing as a small living element in the bottom left of my photograph. This instead of a shot of a jumping penguin. Maybe not too bad after all?
Hans Strand (61) was born in Marmaverken, Sweden. He sees himself as a wide-angle photographer. His work has been shown in numerous exhibitions and won many international prizes, including the prestigious Hasselblad Master Award 2008. Hans lives with his wife and daughter in a suburb of Stockholm.
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