I have just returned from a trip of a lifetime – a visit to an Emperor Penguin colony on the frozen Weddell Sea within the Antarctica Continent.
Yes it was a bit of a hike to get there. It took me a couple of days to travel to the gathering point in Punta Arenas, Chile.
Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) then organised a flight into the continent in a chartered llyushin aircraft. It took just over 4 hours to get to our destination. The excitement of this magnificent aircraft landing on a blue-ice glacier runway and then opening its doors to the biting cold air was simply breathtaking.
Overnight we tented at a base called Union Glacier. The scenery was majestic with the snow covered Ellerson mountains containing the glacier.
Next day the ‘Emperor Party’ (as distinct from those adventurers with a 55 day ski trip to the South Pole) left in twin Otter aircraft to a small base at Gould Bay on the Weddell sea.
Our first venture to the penguin colony was taken after dinner. It was blowing a hooley that night but we were appropriately dressed in layers for the occasion. We pulled a sledge roped around our waist with our camera equipment and other gear for about a mile over the rough snow and ice terrain to get to the first of four colonies.
Adult penguins are not the quietest of birds with their repetitive shrieking but distinct from their chatter we could hear the underlying noise from their chicks with their shrill, lark type twittering. I knew now I had finally arrived at the greatest place on the planet, fulfilling an ambition, a commitment, and feeling very, very, privileged as I took in the panorama cacophony of hundreds of Emperor penguins in their natural environment.
The weather was a little brutal that evening, and although the best light was still to come after midnight after the sun dipped we headed back to our half-buried tents.
Each day we were tempted to stay close to the kitchen but our Chilean chef Patto made sure if we did have to brave the outside then we were well prepared with a huge breakfast and even some snacks if we stayed out for lunch.
The colonies were well exposed to the elements but close by we found their winter breeding ground which was much more sheltered being behind a build-up of snow and ice. The floor was littered not with eggshells, as I expected, but with lifeless chicks frozen into the ice. There no predators, like skuas, to clean the area of these sad carcasses. So there the chicks lay just like discarded toys. They say that only 20% of chicks survive to adulthood.
Each visit was under differing conditions; sometimes blue skies creating shadows and contrast while at other times it was cloudy erasing the definition of the lumpy route to the Penguins. The weather dictated how long you could stay out there. Temperatures ranged between a balmy -6C to -30C with a wind-chill factor.
After a burst of photographing various combinations of chicks and adults the time came when there was a need to be a little more creative ie less photographing from the hip and thinking more creatively about the shot.
To a wildlife photographer it was heaven … albeit a chilly one. It was planned that we stayed 4 nights but on the 3rd morning we were devastated to be told to pack our bags and evacuate at lunch as a protracted snow-storm was forecasted. The lack of notice hit hard as all the ideas of an all night shoot and last day catch-ups were now right of the window. Another expensive lesson learnt I guess.
We arrived back at the Union Glacier Base where we had to kill a few days before the scheduled llyushin arrived to take us back to Chile. It wasn’t too bad a stay as we had good food and excellent company to enjoy plus lectures, excursions, cross country ski-ing and cycling. However, I just wanted to be back with wildlife but that was the one thing the glacier didn’t have.
- Lisa Clark’s Legacy
- Roger Clark’s Quest to Antarctica to Photograph the Right Penguins
- Roger Clark: Trip of a Lifetime – My Antarctic Trip
- Richard Stock: Fundraising for Ovacome
- Richard Stock Raising Money For Ovacome
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