My experience on the Ocean Endeavour, as operated jointly by Chimu Adventures and Intrepid Travel has been a joy through the first few days. And what is amazing to me is that this is not a long-time operator in Antarctica, but rather a first-time operator that is a combination of Chimu – a company specialized in selling (not operating) Antarctic and Central American expeditions – and Intrepid – a company specializing in operating expeditions, but never on a ship.
Part of the expedition is something that is pretty unique: A Photography Program; a real photography program; not how to use your iPad or quickly edit photos, but rather how to take them from both technical and artistic aspects and more.
Note: Throughout this article are my photographs. Some are as I took them and some are as edited in the program. They are not in any particular chronological order vis-a-vis the expedition journey.
The Expedition Team is an impressive combination of men and women that have worked for a well-known expedition ship that didn’t survive Covid and others from more expedition-focused operators. This has resulted in a team that is filled with many years of Antarctica experience and, thus, runs as a well-oiled operation as if they had been working together for years (and in some instances have).
A bit separate from the expedition team, however, is the Photography Program and its experts. This three-member team includes two highly experienced real-world photographers that run the program which is available to up to 20 guests at an additional cost of about $1,400 per person. Our program was sold out, as it seems it is on each voyage.
The Photography Program is no joke. There are classes and homework before one gets to Antarctica and during its return. The classes range from the technical side (shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc.), to how to “see” things graphicly, artistically, etc., and watching the manipulation of each participant’s photos by the experts when back on the ship. It is a very valuable tool…no, better, a very valuable experience.
The leader is Jason Ransom, a bantering, high-energy, photojournalist who has shot four (4) Olympic Games, was the chief photographer to the Canadian Prime Minister, and has a passion for landscape photography. Andrew Miller – the more reserved and contemplative of the two – has spent years photographing in Antarctica and the wilds of the world is extremely knowledgeable, and has a passion for sharing techniques and the joy photography brings to him. The third member is Luke Tscharke, an award-winning Tasmanian landscape photographer with his own wealth of knowledge.
Luke is also the Sony Ambassador; a program that makes available to the participants of the Photography Program Sony cameras and lenses of various sorts along with instructions on how to best utilize the equipment. A number of the guests who participated in the program came with nothing but iPhones or Samsungs and have truly taken advantage of this great opportunity. (One person said that the Sony equipment was easier to use than her Canon camera. Ya never know!)
A huge amount of information is enthusiastically shared and the interplay between Jason and Andrew – each with their own perspectives and techniques – provides access to technology and approaches that, honestly, could make one overwhelmed, but somehow these two make them approachable…and even seemingly achievable. Luke’s well-timed input is a wonderful overlay.
When you first think of a landing in Antarctica you feel like you have to be on the first zodiac. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) hits you hard. However, once you understand that you are not lining up at an amusement park and nature isn’t necessarily going to give you her best right away, you see the benefit of being on the third or sixth zodiac because something can – and usually does – happen later…and you eventually let FOMO slip away.
However, with the Photography Program, you are always on the first zodiacs so that you can take photos without all the humans in the way. While it did afford me some special quiet time to let Antarctica soak in, it also left me feeling a bit rushed as I had to get back to the zodiac at a specific time for the second part of our outing, the zodiac cruise. Ironically, a sort of FOMO for not having a later landing did creep in from time to time.
During the time on the ice, it is your laboratory and playground (perspective dependent). But it also needs to just be your time in Antarctica! Finding that personal balance is a challenge that, at least as I observed, was easier for some than others. (If Antarctica is seen as nothing more than a vehicle to take cool photos, I think much has been lost…and I think for a few – definitely not most! – that happened.)
One of my joys is to find those moments that capture the essence of an animal or tell a story about some aspect of the Antarctic experience. I found – with all the positives – there is one downside. As I am the only participant who has been to Antarctica before I was keenly aware of the lack of “focus” (sorry about that) on the natural sciences of Antarctica. Where the expected expedition team member would give you a few minutes on the life and behaviors of, for example, a Weddell seal, the photography experts talk, for example, about lighting and trying to home in on the subject’s eyes.
For me, Antarctica is not merely a place to visit and photograph. It is emotional. It is a place where so many times it is impossible for a photo to capture its essence. I understand that is not everyone’s view, but the boom in visitors and the need to tick off “Our Seventh Continent” is – for me – repugnant to what is needed to protect this magnificent, awe-inspiring, dangerous, and even scary environment. Hopefully, photography can bring some of that emotion – and, thus, desire to protect it – to those who cannot physically experience Antarctica.
Jason gave a presentation on the last day on this subject and the meaning of the word “sublime“. Philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The sublime causes the passion known as astonishment. This is “that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”
I kind of wish Jason gave his talk at the outset as I think it would wipe away some of the Instagram/Seventh Continent superficial thoughts some had. But, I guess, until you have been to Antarctica understanding the idea that with all its beauty it can kill you if left alone with her in hours is just a concept.
You know I have always preached, “Put The Camera Down!” and the Photography Program does repeatedly encourage it…though I didn’t see it in action with most of the participants. I think having one landing where everyone is limited to, say, 50 photos (rather than hundreds), would be helpful. It might result in a revolt by some, but it isn’t like someone would be put in photography jail if they didn’t follow the suggestion.
For others – that may be less of a wildlife geek than me – the Photography Program has provided them a way to keep their minds from wandering or a way to engage wildlife that, to date, has been foreign to them. Yet, after contemplating it for a while, but most certainly not yet fully, I wonder how many of the participants utilized their cameras to enhance having Antarctica drawn into them and how many were, in effect, shielded from it because the camera was pretty regularly between their heart and minds and Antarctica itself? Did the focus on that Instagram shot or Facebook story undercut what a traveler, an environmentalist, or even a romantic, might otherwise feel within themselves?
It is even harder to know if one doesn’t actually know the experience without truly putting the camera down. At one point I counted that I had taken 566 photos near the end of the expedition, which includes a bunch of feeding whale photos seeking that perfect tail fluke shot) while others spoke in the multiple thousands. Ya don’t know what you don’t know and, of course, how could you? It makes us wonder if all that time behind the lens makes each one want to return to the Antarctic or just tick it off as “done and dusted”. To each his/her own. (Alas, one woman was speaking to me about a photo she took that Jason edited and she became quite teary-eyed. Yup, Antarctica got her and she got Antarctica!)
That said, the number of hours these Jason and Andrew have spent reviewing, editing, and discussing each participant’s photos is mind-boggling, all while sitting in an area of the lounge dubbed “The Knotty Corner”. After spending 5+ hours on the ice and zodiac cruising it is followed by another 5 or so hours each evening sitting with the participants going over their photographs, selecting the best ones, editing them, explaining what they are doing to each photograph and why (to the extent the participants desire), and ultimately compiling a slideshow of everyone’s efforts to be distributed at the end of the program.
Two things clearly show how well the program has been embraced: Every evening The Knotty Corner is full of participants, whether their photos are being edited or not; and, not a single person has dropped out of the program. In fact, there is a core group of women that have really bonded within the program and to see that is, simply, a joy.
Putting the Photography Program to the test on Day Two started with our passing through the Lemaire Channel. It was a snowy, cloudy early morning, but I spent at least two hours on the bow sharing the experience with some of the other guests and feeling – as happens fairly often down here – as if I was living in an Ansel Adams photograph.
What has now become the omnipresent cry from our excellent Expedition Team Leader, due to a huge storm system, is that everything to the north, including the South Shetland Islands, just wasn’t possible to visit. But that wasn’t a problem for me, as our next landing was at my favorite of all places in Antarctica (at least so far): Neko Harbor.
With the glacier faces so incredibly close to you yet also framing the bay and Gentoo penguins attempting (unsuccessfully this year) to nest on the few barren bit of land due to the tremendous amount of snow that has fallen this year, I can’t get enough of this place.
That evening, as we were cruising, there were – once again – humpbacks feeding. Lots of them including quite a bit of lunge feeding.
As a side note about the Photography Program, one thing I had been looking forward to was the use of two brand-new Explorer boats as part of the photography program. Each holds ten guests and is faster, longer range, and with forward-facing seating. Unfortunately, these expensive experimental boats, are sidelined because they just don’t work well in Antarctica. With fiberglass hulls, there are too many rocky sites where they cannot land, they are heavy so getting them on and off the ship is difficult (especially if there is a swell), and the seating actually doesn’t work well. But honestly, I don’t think their not being used has been a detriment to the program.
I am impressed with Chimu Adventures/Intrepid Travel’s Antarctica experience from the Expedition Team to the Photography Program. It most certainly is providing me with “My Luxury” along with the comfort and peace of knowing that while I truly enjoy and appreciate wonderful suites, fine dining, and superlative hotel services, when it comes to Antarctica they just don’t matter that much to me.
The good news is that the expeditions to Antarctica are quite varied and there are most certainly options that allow for “Your Luxury” to be achieved and enjoyed!