Lessons Learned–Antarctica 2016
The measure of a trip away to me is the question, if money were no object, would you go there again?
When it comes to our trip to Antarctica the answer would definitely be yes. In fact Birdlife Australia are adverting a trip, including South Georgia, for November this year and I would love to win lotto and go.
There are things I would do the same and others I would do differently, so on the off chance I ever do get the opportunity to go again I’m going to write them down so I don’t forget. Some of this might even be useful to someone else one day. Who knows. The Project Manager in me knows a thing isn’t over until you’ve reflected on the Lessons Learned, so here goes.
Research, planning and pre-preparation
Expectations can make or break an experience. Set them too high and you’ll be disappointed Expect something to be bad, and most likely it will be. Finding the sweet spot is tricky. On a trip like this there are also expectations of yourself. We were spending a lot of money on travel and gear, so I was carrying a the weight of my expectations of myself and my photography along with everything else. Luckily that didn’t add to the actual weight of our baggage so we got through the whole trip without paying excess luggage fees.
Everyone I spoke to before I went was saying how great it was going to be, so there really was no way or lowering expectations about Antarctica itself. That was fine as it did not let us down. There were others on our trip who had clearly set themselves the expectation of crossing the Arctic circle, and there may have been those who desperately wanted to see Adelle penguins. As we didn’t end up getting far enough south for either of those because or mangled thumbs and uncooperative weather those people may have felt they didn’t get everything they wanted from the journey.
For me I was expecting to see icebergs and penguins. And we did. What I wasn’t expecting was to get snowed on and that was a magical surprise. I wasn’t expecting to get sea sick, but took medication to be safe and it was fine.
Research, Pre-planning and Preparation
When imagining a new trip I usually think I’m going to do a stack of research about where we are going and the things to do when we get there. After doing the basics to determine travel and accommodation logistics I tend to get distracted. On this trip I delegated the planning for the two city stays, Santiago and Buenos Aires, to Kingsley. Whihc meant we basically ended up winging it. I was a little frustrated by that at the time, but in retrospect I’m quite mellow about it. We had a lovely time and saw some interesting things. Could we have done more? Sure, but we weren’t there to check things off lists.
I was very pleased with how my hotel address and exchange rate cheat sheets worked out.
I printed out a business card with the name and address of each of our hotels on it before leaving home On arrival in a new city we just handed this card over to the taxi driver and away we went. Much less stressful than an experience in Berlin where the taxi driver started taking us to Potsdam
when we wanted to go to Potsdamer Strasse. Left both him and us quite upset and rattled.
The quick exchange rate cards likewise saved us doing much mental arithmetic and went easy on the iphone calculator.
Offline google maps were a definite must have. We were also glad to have Global Roaming turned on when we got back from Antarctica to a distressing SMS about one of our dogs going walk about back home (all safe and sound by the time we got back)
Over all I was happy with the gear I took and how it functioned. I was glad to have two camera bodies with me despite the extra weight. It gave me the confidence to get the camera out on the zodiac and in all weather with the knowledge that in the worst case scenario I wouldn’t be stuck without a camera.
On all but one occasion I had spare, empty memory cards on hand so I could change them out in the field. I carried them in a little case, turning used cards so they faced inwards and empty cards so they faced outwards to prevent confusion. I downloaded and backed up photos after each outing, so at any point in time there would be three copies on three different media. I had enough cards with me that I didn’t need to reformat them while away which turned out to be a VERY good thing.
The one time I didn’t have my trusty case with me was the time a fellow photographer ran out of room on hers. I would have been able to loan her one otherwise, so I’ll be making sure I have a spare card with me every time I go out in future.
I wish I’m taken a good pair of waterproof gloves. The special gloves we bought have little ‘peepholes’ in the fingers which theoretically let you press buttons and things more easily. More often than not I took the glove off my right hand when photographing and just wore a thin merino glove liner. In between shots I’d either put the outer glove back on or stuff my hand in my pocket.
The outer gloves weren’t waterproof, so quickly became wet when you moved around the ship hanging on to snowy or wet handrails. Kingsley made use of the hairdryer in our cabin to dry the gloves out.
Waterproofing the camera. The weather shield I had got more use in Iguazu than the Antarctic. It certainly kept the camera dry, as intended, but you needed to have a very good idea of where all your controls were as although you could see the LCD the top panel of buttons, which in my case have all the important settings like ISO, autofocus and burst modes, metering etc, are not visible. That would probably be fine if you were going out to focus on a single subject in pretty stable conditions, but we were switching between portraits on seals, landscapes, flying seabirds every time the zodiac changed direction so changing your settings was part and parcel. It did act as a large, warm and waterproof glove though, so given that my actual gloves weren’t waterproof it all worked out ok.
Some other travelers had a much simpler set up which was a clear plastic sleeve with an elbow joint and that seemed to work really well. Unless you were somewhere where it is really belting down that might be a better option.
We took a selection of dry bags along, and a rain cover for my camera bag. I did use the dry bag a couple of times, but it was more for peace of mind than any practical use. We certainly could have done without the two large bags and just taken just one small one. The rain cover for the camera bag worked really well. The bag is reasonably weather sealed itself, but the cover meant that spray on the zodiac, rain and snow were a non issue.
Battery life was something I was concerned about, having read dire warnings. I was pleasantly surprised with how well the batteries lasted for me. I knew that GPS drains the battery so I’d turned that off, which is something I now regret.
We were able to charge everything up in our cabins. We traveled with a power board and a European power adapter which worked a treat in our rooms. In the lounge/bar the power sockets were different and I don’t recall which adapter worked up there. We had access to a few different kinds so it all worked out.
The laptop we took was Kingsley’s old one, which was heavy and ungainly. Given how much the trip was costing I couldn’t justify buying a new one, and although I had the ipad with me that wouldn’t have given me the ability to download and backup all my pictures to external hard drives. I’m glad to have had the laptop there, but one which weighed less and that actually held more than 60 seconds of charge would have been an improvement.
The selection of software I’d loaded up met all my requirements. The Scopoderm patches we were wearing to prevent sea sickness gave both of us fuzzy vision so I didn’t get as much done on it as I had expected.
The two WD My Passport hard drives were great and I’ll be traveling with them again.
Adding to the weight I also took a ipad, iphone and a kindle. I wouldn’t have been without any of them for the trip, though I would make sure I downloaded the offline maps before heading overseas. The ipad was perfect entertainment for long flights and I made use of it for blogging in some instance too. It was amazing to see how many people on the boat used their ipad as their primary camera!
I need to be revising my blogging platform (watch this space). People had all sorts of issues adding comments to the blog, and I didn’t know they were there until I got home. I could move my blog to the same platform as my online galleries, but I’m a little wary of doing that in case I decided to move that to another vendor at some stage. I’ve got this one on my list to investigate this year.
Blogging on the road was fine in those places where there was decent internet. That meant it was unbearable in Ushuaia and Iguazu. It all takes up more time than you think it will, but doing it on the day really is important. I wish I’d taken better notes on those days I didn’t write on the boat.. The eyesight didn’t help, but even scrawling something on a bit of paper would have been a good idea. The big events you remember, but it is the smaller, more intimate observations of the moment that slip away.
A spell checker wasn’t available for Open Live Writer when I left, but I’m pleased to say there is now so hopefully future posts will be less prone to my poor typographic skills.
I only took one lens cloth and wish I’d taken a couple more. I spend more time than necessary figuring out where I’d put the one I had. I did try and buy a spare in Ushuaia before setting out, but had no luck locating one.
I could have left the macro lens at home, but I was happy with the rest. My walk around Canon 18-200 may only be a kit lens, but I’ve been very happy with the flexibility it gives me, and I’ve taken some shots I’m very happy with using it over the last few years. The Tamron 70-200 was great on the boat and the shore when I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to lug the 150-600 around. The Tamron 150-600 was great for birds and whales and penguins. So although there was quite a bit of duplication there, I don’t think that was a bad thing. I was able to stick different lenses on the two bodies and when I got my cat together that made for easier switching where required.
I wish I’d taken more pictures. I know this sounds stupid considering the GBs of photos I came home with, but I found I didn’t take as many as I thought I was taking at the time. You won’t be back there again in a hurry so don’t be self conscious about how many times your shutter fires. Work the shot, make it count. Get your delete key ready for a workout.
I wish I’d worked my shots more. There is a very real FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when you do a trip like this. Because you don’t get a lot of time in any one place, and because the wildlife is on the move, every choice you make comes with an opportunity cost. Staying an extra five minutes with this penguin here might mean you don’t see the iceberg tipping over there. I wish I’m stayed up later and gotten up earlier to make more of the sunsets and sunrises.
The flip side to that is you also need to take time to just absorb the experience. This sounds counter to the above, and maybe it is. Because of the weather and the medical evacuation we didn’t get quite as much of the experience as we might have done. But I was glad to take the time to just gaze out at the magic surrounds, to feel the wind on your face, the cold seeping through your fingertips but not getting into your core, rejoicing at the effortless maneuvers of the birds in those winds of the Drake Passage, and the effort involved in taking off and landing on the waves.
The beauty and joy of the dolphins using the bow wave to slip stream. The effort of the breaching humpbacks. The play of the penguin chicks, the studious care of their parents. The drama that plays out before you as the skuas and chicks battle it out for their survival, predator and prey equally keen to see the next day. The smell of the penguin poo, the smiles of delight on fellow travelers. The wonderfully familiar wake-up call of “Good morning, good morning expeditioners” in Monika’s friendly but no-nonsense German accent.
I wish I’d taken more people pictures. I will be working to get some more portrait experience this year I think. People give perspective.
There wasn’t as much structure to the photographic part of the tour as I anticipated there might be. Given the range of interest and experience that makes sense in retrospect. Alex was certainly there to answer questions put to her. The number of people feeling poorly through illness or seasickness would have made a set structure difficult to stick to.
There were some things I think that would have been useful to have known before we started out, a pre-trip technical checklist which I will try and compile One of the things I really, really, really wish I’d done was to set the time and date on my camera on arrival. It would have saved me a heap of rework later on.
We flew Perth, Sydney, Santiago, Igauzu Falls (via BA), Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Aukland, Sydney, Perth.
That meant a lot of airports and transfers. If repeating the journey I’d make sure I flex direct from Sydney to Santiago, and would have stopped in BA, before heading up to Iguazu, allowing the trip from Iguazu to Ushuaia to be done together, eliminating the need to transit between International and Domestic airports.
LAN were great, though the food on board did get a little samey. The staff were helpful and polite. QANTAS were fine too, though we did get a plane that was just about my age.
Between the two of us we fit under the luggage weight limit, but only just when it came to carry on.
We didn’t really need to take the three travel pillows we had with us. In fact one would probably have sufficed.
The Ushuaia was a great little ship. I am so very pleased we traveled on her and not one of the big monsters that was tied up in port. The staff were lovely and we had everything we could want and more. The food was not amazing, but it was plentiful and made a bit of a conversation piece.
Traveling as part of a group.
I’m not a natural joiner. Being an introvert and finding it difficult to follow conversations where there is background noise posed a challenge that I think I failed to rise to on more than one occasion. Luckily Kingsley is very good at being my buffer, and this holiday had lots of structure which enabled (or forced) me to be a part of the group while still having time to myself to recharge.
Being in a smallish group in a largish group was also a little odd. Some travelers tended to an isolationist policy, trying to keep withing their own cluster together at all times to the exclusion of the other passengers on the ship. Others preferred to mingle with those from all nations aboard, and there was a broad spectrum including the USA, Germany, China, India, UK and France, not to mention the crew from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia and Columbia. With one crew member to every two passengers we didn’t get to meet them all, although as our cabin was on the lower deck and the engine crew tended to smoke outside the hatch on our level we had a nodding acquaintance with many of them.
There was one fellow passengers on the ship, traveling alone, called Gina. A Chinese girl living in the US she went about making sure she got to know everyone on the boat. I would love to have that level of comfort and confidence. She was just a lovely person and had an absolute ball. Always ready with a smile, and happy to challenge people and their views she was well traveled and keen to extract everything she could from every situation.
Some of the connections made as part of the trip have persisted and we had a little catch up a little while ago. There is the chance of some more local excursions in the future.
Clothing and Laundry
I never anticipated how difficult it would be to make sure we had clean clothes. We ended up paying a (relatively) small fortune to hotels in some places simply because of poor planning and preparation. Many laundry services were closed on Mondays, and if you need anything cleaned over Carnival you will need to do it yourself.
Next time I’ll be looking at laundry locations when booking my accommodation, and taking laundry in as the first thing in any new city.
We have enough stuff without having too much. Two suitcases and two carry on suitcases in total was plenty. Having the right things with you at any moment is key of course. Our coldest experience was back on the continent when we went on a tour without multiple layers of coats, thermals, gloves and hats. Out in the penguin colony we shivered out way in the wind and the rain, far far colder than we had been in Antarctica.
Just Do It
Perhaps the most important lesson of the lot, if you have the opportunity to do something amazing, go for it. Life is full of regrets for things you might have done but didn’t. On this trip I learned things about the world we live in, the people in it, the wilderness, my husband and myself. The pattern of my life is richer for the things I’ve seen, the mistakes I’ve made, the things that have both scared, infuriated and delighted me. The more I see, the more I want to see. The more I learn, the more I want to learn.
Of course coming home is always lovely as well.