In December a Facebook “challenge” was making the rounds named #challengeonnaturephotography. One of my favorite underwater photographers, Allison Vitsky Sallmon, nominated me to give it a try, and these are the seven images I plucked from my files to share. Each bears a special place in my personal history of travel, diving and photography, even if they don’t cut any new ground photographically. If you want to connect you can find me on Facebook and Instagram. Cheers, and thanks for looking!
Ocean sunfish recruiting fish near drift kelp to clean parasites, open ocean, Baja California. Image ID: 03267 Species: Ocean sunfish, Mola mola
I’m gradually revisiting my website galleries and improving them, removing images of lesser quality (unfortunately a lot of those!) and updating existing galleries with new material. If you enjoy penguins please take a look at my collection of Penguin Photos. With one exception**, all of these penguin photos were taken on a single long trip I made to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula (see my lengthy PDF trip journal if you want the deets, or you can view the same info as a series of blog posts). I was thrilled, nearly everyday of my trip to the Southern Ocean, to see penguins in the wild, sometimes in vast numbers, and I cannot wait to return to those places again. Within a few months of returning, one of the images was selected as the cover and inside spread in Nature’s Best, which was a real treat as I had not had an image published in that great magazine in some years. Thanks for looking!
King penguin colony. Over 100,000 pairs of king penguins nest at Salisbury Plain, laying eggs in December and February, then alternating roles between foraging for food and caring for the egg or chick.
** The exception is the Galapagos Penguin underwater photo which was made in, you guessed it, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.
Last year I got to cross off one of my bucket list items: surfing penguins. I was fortunate to see surfing gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) on New Island in the Falkland Islands. After hiking around some of New Island for most of the afternoon, visiting a couple of penguin and cormorant rookeries, I found myself at sunset on a gorgeous, long flat sand beach. The light was warm and gold, there was no wind and it was warm enough to wear just a light sweatshirt. All the others on the M/V Polar Star had left to return to the ship and I had the beach to myself, with penguins coming ashore from their foraging excursions in small groups. The gentoo penguins would ride the waves in at top speed, skizzing** across the shallow water and quickly flipping upright to land on their feet. Quickly they would shuffle across the beach and walk up onto the adjacent hills to find their nests and settle in for the evening.
Gentoo penguin coming ashore, after foraging at sea, walking through ocean water as it wades onto a sand beach. Adult gentoo penguins grow to be 30″ and 19lb in size. They feed on fish and crustaceans. Gentoo penguins reside in colonies well inland from the ocean, often formed of a circular collection of stones gathered by the penguins. Image ID: 23830 Species: Gentoo penguin, Pygoscelis papua Location: New Island, Falkland Islands, United Kingdom
**another invented word, my third this year. Skizzing is like “skimming” only much better.
These Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) in Antarctica seem unable to make up their minds which way to go. In fact, they are on a mission, walking from their nests on Paulet Island to the edge of the water, to swim out to sea and forage. I had earlier laid my camera down on the snow alongside the path there were following, and when the penguins strolled up I triggered the camera a few times from 50′ away with a $10 radio trigger I bought on Ebay. The seemed curious about the clicking sound coming from the strange and shiny black box laying on the snow, and stood around looking at it for a while. I made a few fun photos that way, including this one.
We are gradually working our way south along the western flanks of the Antarctica Peninsula. This afternoon we reach Cuverville Island after a 60 mile transit through the Gerlache Straight from our morning’s visit to Cierva Cove. Cuverville Island hosts a colony of Gentoo Penguins (Pygoscelis papua) and our timing coincides with the Gentoos’ rearing of their chicks. Gentoo nests are made of small stones, and the adults will frequently (almost constantly) steal stones from one another’s nests. It is a humorous situation to watch but I realize the incessent watchfulness and robbery required of their species’ lifestyle must be tiresome for these small kleptomaniacs. Watching the chicks as they are tended by their parents is the highlight of my time on Cuverville Island. They are so tiny and yet incredibly hardy to survive in such bitterly cold and windy surroundings. A Gentoo penguin chick’s home is literally a small shallow ring of stones built on bare rock, exposed to harsh wind, rain, snow and mist from the nearby ocean, with only the bulk and warmth of its parent penguin to offer any meaningful protection from the elements. Brown skuas are constantly present nearby, awaiting an opportunity to swoop in quickly and attack an unprotected penguin chick. Life is difficult here.
The forecast for this morning was not encouraging: winds up to 35 knots which would generate waves large enough to shut down our ability to land on this steep, exposed, black-sand beach. However, at 6am we found relatively calm seas and little wind at Deception Island, with a smallish swell that caused a little anxiety and some minor mishaps with the zodiacs due to the very steep beach but was not enough to keep us from landing ashore. Bailey Head is a large volcanic plug towering over a long, beautiful black sand beach. Cliffs run the length of the beach. Penguins occupy the edge of the beach for several hundred yards, a mass of black-and-white specks on a black expanse of sand. Seemingly endless columns of chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) waddle back and forth between the beach and the rim of the volcano that comprises the island.
On the beach, chinstraps nervously gather together waiting for a moment when they can rush en masse down the slope to plunge into the water, swimming rapidly through the shallows to avoid a leopard seal that patrols the shore. What I am seeing is a fascinating spectacle. The sheer number of chinstrap penguins and the constant flow of animals between the heights above and the surf below is impressive. Light rain and some wind comes and goes during our four hours ashore. The light is flat, making for difficult photography. I shoot a few time lapse series, hoping to illustrate the nature of the movement of the many penguins, but it is not easy since we are constrained from going up on the hills above the penguin highway for a better look for fear of displacing the animals from their route. I also shoot some video which will probably be more appealing than the photos, since the video captures the cacophony of the birds and the sounds of the surf. By 11am I am back in a zodiac headed for the boat. I skipped the novelty visit to the hot springs after lunch due to the declining weather. Instead, we watched the hardier folks swimming in the mix of hot springs and icy ocean water, under falling snow and blowing wind. Hard core.
Our approach to Brown Bluff took us across a broad sound complete with blue sky and many scenic bergs, then into a thick fog bank as we left the sound and entered a narrower passage with clouds and cold air pouring down to the water from the glaciers on each side (glaciers make their own weather).
Brown Bluff, an aptly named large rock promontory situated between two glaciers, appeared before us as we approached through a clearing in the fog. Many small bergs were floating just offshore of the bluff, so the big boat was anchored a ways off and we accessed the bluff and its cobblestone beaches with a half mile zodiac run. Several types of penguins nest below the bluff, and are constantly leaving and arriving via the beach. I headed away from the penguins and people to a swath of beach that fronted a long, rolling edge of an ice field.
The 30’ ice field ended abruptly almost at the water, leaving a strip of about 50’ of cobblestone beach upon which to walk. The edge of the ice revealed horizontal striations about a foot apart. Were they created by seasonal accumulations of dark dirt blown on top of white snow, or where they perhaps picked from the soil below? I think this interesting “wave” of ice overhanging the beach was the edge of an icefield, rather than a glacier proper, but am not sure. I set about trying to photograph it with my widest lens, contrasting the undulating striations in the wall of ice against the more uniform dark of the beach and the water. It grew cloudy. Water dripped off the ice, wetting the cobbles that would otherwise be dry. I waded out into the water to inspect a few small bergs that had grounded on the shore. Penguins would occasionally swim by me, nearly bumping my legs as they zoomed through the shallows to exit the water onto the beach. Sometimes one would notice me and stop, sticking its head above water and giving me a look-over, swimming about my legs once before moving on its way. Curious little guys.
After scrambling over the rocks to get back to the landing site, I rejoined some others and looked about the bluff area to get a sense of all the different bird activity that was happening. Vic was lying down on the cobbles, allowing groups of penguins to pass him by as they walked along the beach. I joined him and soon had a group of 20 or so birds approach far too close for me to take any pictures. They chose a spot 3’ in front of me to make their mad dash into the water. I did not see any leopard seals so I think their concern – and their panicky group entrance into the ocean – was unwarranted, but they must use that method always out of habit or instinct.
Later we hopped in a zodiac with Hugh and cruised around among the bergs. This was the highlight of the day. Hugh managed to find a group of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) that were diving into the water from a sloping edge of a berg, and we got some nice shots. He then topped that with a group of 14 birds on an even-more-scenic berg, all of whom entered the water from a 5’ ledge. Some of the photos that others (with widers lenses than I) got in that instance were stunning, really suitable for fine art. I got a couple keepers too. Finally he drove our boat into the basin of a hand-shaped berg, with all five fingers protuding 10-20’ out of the water. A 50’ wide basin about 10’ deep was formed between the fingers, large enough for us to take the boat into and slowly maneuver. The whole thing glowed with that cool iceberg blue glow. It sounds simple and unremarkable but the colors were simply out of this world and everyone in our little group was moved by how stunning the color and shape of this berg was. By now the fog had returned and we could see neither beach, nor boat. We were zipping on grey water upon which no horizon could be discerned, between white and blue bergs. Eventually we found the big boat, and the landing, and reclaimed our stuff from the beach before returning to the big boat for dinner.
Arriving at Devil Island, the morning presented the most spectacular blue-sky weather we experienced during our entire voyage. Devil Island rose above us after we anchored, twin peaks about 800’ high framing a saddle about half that. On the slope of the island before us was a broad colony of penguins. Many grounded small bergs were nestled up against the side of the island, having become caught there at a previous low tide and remaining trapped. Some were cracking and breaking under their own weight as the tide dropped through the morning, producing occasional loud popping sounds following by waves radiating out from the busted up piece of ice.
I elected to hike to the summit of the Devil Island, foregoing any time in a zodiac, since I figured the view was too good to pass up and I wanted to bag a new peak. I shot some great video of the colony on the shoulder of the island, and then followed Ted, Ross, Markus and Jo up to the top. Many others got up there too. The view from the top of the right horn of the island was superb, a full 360 degrees including the channel separating Devil Island from the Antarctic continent on one side, and clear across the Gerlache Strait on the other side. Nothing but blue sky and sun, finally, after weeks of crap weather. It was warm, only the thinnest fleece was required, and sunglasses and sunscreen the order of the day. Not much to say beyond that. I spent as much time at the top as I could, watching the tiny zodiacs far below slowly circumnavigate Devil Island, dodging bergs as they did so. In many places, one could see down through the clear, still water to the ocean bottom below. This would definitely have been a good place to hop in the water with drysuit and camera housing for some u/w shots of bergs, but that will have to wait for next trip. About lunch time we left Devil Island in our wake, motoring further down the channel for our first step on the continent proper at Brown Bluff.
I was able to spend quite a bit of time sightseeing and photographing from a Zodiac (inflatable) while in Antarctica. These hours were some of the most special of the trip. In some ways, one has more freedom of movement while in a zodiac than one does on land in Antarctica. Certainly the perspective one gains, while moving about at the water’s edge, is appealing. After spending the day ashore at Paulet Island, I elected to join Hugh Rose and Patrick Endres in a zodiac that they were driving, to look for penguins on small icebergs and just enjoy the surroundings before we departed that evening. We came upon some beautiful small bergs that afternoon, the most interesting of which was this pockmarked chunk:
Iceberg with scalloped erosion. The eroded indentations on this iceberg were melted when this portion of the iceberg was underwater. As it melted, the iceberg grew topheavy, eventually flipping and exposing this interesting surface. Image ID: 24789 Location: Paulet Island, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica
Later, we had the very good fortune to raft up alongside an iceberg that was carrying some inquisitive Adelie penguins, who immediately walked across the berg to meet us and seemed as if they wanted to hop in our boat! (See my blog entry about the penguin encounter.) The sun cleared some clouds and cast low, warm, flat light on the little birds, while the clouds in the distance remained dark — a photographer’s dream. I was able to shoot some fun images of them, including the one below as well as one that became the recent cover of Nature’s Best Magazine.
Patrick was keen on photographing the ice, so the rest of us in the boat took notice (at least I did) and made some photos too. It is just like photographing snowflakes, no two views are alike. I knew I was never going to be able to photograph even a tiny fraction of the beautiful Antarctic ice that surrounded us, and resigned myself to just trying to make a few good ones.
After we returned to the icebreaker M/V Polar Star, the captain took us on a long cruise through some nearby channels, offering us sunset views that I will never forget. I lashed one of my cameras to the ship’s wheel house and shot a cool timelapse of our sunset cruise.
We arrive early in the morning at Paulet Island, our first taste of the Antarctic Peninsula. As we navigate our approach through ice-filled channels around the island, large groups of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) are seen swimming in the water and gathered on the edges of bergs and fast ice. While the day dawns cloudy, it will clear periodically later today, with broken clouds and beautiful Antarctic weather on and off. Strong currents roil the waters about the Paulet Island, moving bergs and brash ice constantly. It takes the captain of the icebreaker M/V Polar Star some time to make a firm anchor.
When the boat is securely anchored, we venture out in zodiacs for some cruising among the ice. Adelie penguins abound. The island is literally covered with Adelies and their curious stone nests, while groups of them are found on the beautifully sculpted ice everywhere we look. When they leave their ice perches and take to the water, their porpoising across the glassy sea is marvelous to watch. They are like small speedy footballs leaping out of the water, only to disappear and reappear again every few seconds as their sturdy wings propel them forward. They are nearly impossible to photograph while porpoising, for me at least, and I resign myself to admiring them and trying to photograph the ones standing still on the ice. Simple photos for simple photographers.
After returning to the big boat, I gather my gear and take a second zodiac ride to land ashore on Paulet Island. It is still morning, but I decide in advance to skip lunch and just stay onshore all day, knowing that each hour with my feet on the ground in Antarctica is exceptionally valuable and is my motivation for making this journey. What a place, so much life here! A cacophony of penguin sounds fills the air, for the many hours that I am ashore. The colony sections themselves are so dense and vast that we stay along the perimeters, in the thin strip of ice- and boulder-covered beach the penguins traverse as they make their way between the ocean and their nests. In the colony itself, the birds are spaced in a highly-regular fashion, with their nests just a few feet apart from one another. I am struck by this aspect of the colony, having seen it earlier in the trip at the phenomenal black-browed albatross colony at Steeple Jason in the Falkland Islands. It seems that each member of the species has exactly the same tolerance for others of its kind, needs exactly the same room to maintain its sanity, leading to the spatial pattern before me that is repeated as far into the colony as one can see. Indeed, when viewed from the boat, the colony takes on an almost abstract look. Mother Nature employs her wonderful mathematics again, producing yet another example of regularity and order out of the chaos that is Life.
I move to the edge of the island to watch the penguins that are departing to forage at sea. They are not unlike a little river: birds constantly “flowing” from their nesting areas on the plateau above down into the water. Hanging over the cobblestone beach on which I sit is a small cliff of melting ice. Every 30 seconds or so a group of penguins approaches along the edge of this ice, using well-worn paths left behind by thousands of small feet, until they reach a gap in the ice cliff through which they can jump down onto the cobblestone. From there they gather at the water’s edge into nervous groups of 10 to 50 before rushing en masse into the water, strategically using their numbers to foil any predatory leopard seal that may be waiting underwater. I setup my camera and tripod in a location where I am sure the penguins will come by. I then move away, and wait. Soon a curious group gathers around the camera, looking at it inquisitively, clucking softly and gently pecking at it to discover what it might be. As they do so, I use my wireless trigger ($20 on Ebay) to take a few pictures of them — from 50′ away. The camera is set to operate as silently as possible to avoid startling the little birds, and the technique works great. When the penguins finally leave, I am able to go inspect my camera and see the images I got; a few look like keepers. I try my remote-cam technique a few more times and am happy with the results. Here are a couple examples; I could have been sipping a margarita in a beach chair while taking these, if it were not so cold:
As the day passes, I realize that the movement of the penguins here cannot be conveyed in a single image. So I spend my last two hours on shore arranging several time-lapse sequences, composed of hundreds of photos that together are arranged into a short movie. One never really knows how the result of a time-lapse effort will appear until the final product is finished on the computer. I did not finally see the result of these efforts until now, some six months after my day on Paulet Island: