ICESHELVES & ADELIES Dr. Andrew peAcock's photographic adventure across the ross sea

In January & February this year I was contracted to EYOS Expeditions as an expedition physician on a large private ship. ‘The World’ undertook a seven-day voyage through the turbulent Southern ocean from Hobart to the Ross Sea in East Antarctica, and returned to Christchurch in New Zealand after three weeks.

In the Bay of Whales, an indentation in the massive Ross Ice Shelf, we sailed as far south as any ship has ever been. This was the location from where the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen launched his successful expedition to be the first to reach the Geographical South Pole on December 14th, 1911.

It is a very special place, very remote and not commonly visited. In this Antarctic tourism season only about 650 people of 40,000 total visitors to Antarctica headed to the Ross Sea. The vast majority of tourists make the much shorter (but no less daunting) crossing of the Drake Passage from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Like many Coastalwatch followers I am an advocate for the importance of the ocean environment and arguably no area is more important as a driver of ocean currents, global weather systems and as a feeding location for the whale population that we see each year along the Australian coast than the Southern ocean.

Significantly after six years of international negotiations the Ross Sea will include a 1.55 million kilometres squared marine protected area from December 2017. So overall I felt very privileged to be given the opportunity to work and to photograph there.

Our expedition team consisted of naturalists, an atmospheric physicist, glaciologist, geologist and an ice pilot. Together with a very experienced ship captain and crew that made for some very educational discussions in the officer’s mess and on the bridge.

In addition to being on hand for medical emergencies (there was one!) I was the assistant kayak guide and one of the Zodiac drivers for passenger excursions ashore or into the ice looking for wildlife. It was a busy trip!

I love photographing icebergs; they are all so different in architectural form and varied blue coloured hues. They all started out from the calving of ice from a glacier into the ocean and then are sculpted by the wind, waves and solar radiation. About 90% of an iceberg is below the surface and so photographically it’s fun to try and represent that with an over/under shot like the one I took of the single Adelie penguin on a small berg. I can imagine people wondering if I’ve gone too far with a saturation adjustment in post processing the RAW photo file, but no, the blues are indeed that intense to the eye.

This was the sixth time I’ve been lucky enough to visit Antarctica and I will never tire of going there. The ice, the endemic wildlife and constant daylight all combine to make it a very unique environment and one that is constantly changing.

Contrary to what many people might think it’s not that cold in the summer months and let’s face it we had the ability to retreat back to a warm ship for a beer while checking email if conditions outside took a turn for the worse. So we weren’t exactly doing it tough down there, the contrast with the conditions faced by the early explorers couldn’t have been any more extreme.

We got lucky with a glorious afternoon for sea kayaking in Terra Nova Bay but just after we headed back to the ship we were reminded of how harsh the conditions can be when a katabatic wind blowing off the Antarctic plateau arrived with gusts screaming at 80 knots whipping the ocean into a shimmering whiteness.

Amid the hustle and bustle of ship activities it can be easy to forget about the otherworldly expanse of the landscape that lies beyond the protection of the reinforced steel hull. Surprisingly it’s not a silent landscape. I love paddling in Antarctic waters; it’s an opportunity to get amongst the ice, away from the ship, to see the icebergs up close – but not too close because they can roll without warning– and to sit and listen to the sound of creaking and popping as ancient air bubbles are released from within the ice.

The sound of squawking Adelie Penguins is often not far away either in the Ross Sea. To visit a rookery like the one at Franklin Island is to be immersed in a sensory overload of stinking Penguin guano combined with the raucous calling of chicks wanting to be fed by a parent.

Penguins are endlessly fascinating to watch and photograph. There are strict guidelines for viewing wildlife in Antarctica and Penguins should not be approached closer than 5 meters on land but they are very inquisitive birds and will often wander straight past you if you sit and observe them quietly. Penguins are only on land for a few short months of the summer in order to hatch and raise their chicks. It’s a frenetic time for the parents. The behaviour seen at a rookery will depend on exactly what time in the process you happen to be there.

The ability of a parent to find the right chick among the many thousands at Franklin Island upon returning from feeding is quite uncanny. It was hilarious watching the ungainly pursuit of a misidentified parent by some of the hungry chicks. As a photographer it can be hard to know how to go about creating interesting images when surrounded by so many Penguins and with all sorts of activities on display. Again, stopping in one spot to observe and learn about their behaviour is a good place to start. In the ocean Penguins are masters of fluid dynamics and can propel themselves very quickly through the water, all the while on the look out for their main predator, the leopard seal.

Antarctica is well worth seeing at least once and I encourage you to explore all the possibilities to travel there. You won’t be disappointed.

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