Astronauts have said that the most distinctive feature of Earth as seen from space is Antarctica, which “radiates light like a great white lantern across the bottom of the world”. Its ice sheet is over 2km thick on average, contains more that 90% of the world’s ice and snow, and has an area greater that the US and Central America combined. If suddenly melted, oceans would rise dramatically and drown a large chunk of humanity.
Yet, until 200 years ago no one had seen it, let alone explore it. Why? You need to understand the type of place it is. South of the Antarctic circle there is no habitation that we can call home. The only vegetation are a handful of mosses and lichens and the only Antarctica native land life are protozoa and wingless flies. There is very little to no rainfall, gushing winds with speeds of over 200km/h are not rarity in certain areas, and temperatures can drop as low as -90°C. It is largely inaccessible (or at least extremely dangerous) by water for 8-9 months due to the ring of ice that strengthens in winter months and could crush ships. In short, it’s not a hospitable place.
Yet it is a land of extreme and spectacular contrast. It can be transformed within minutes to a place of ethereal beauty. Quite suddenly the wind will drop, the sky will clear, the light will strengthen until mountains many miles away can be seen with a naked eye (as you will see below), and the ice will glow with colors so brilliant and be engulfed by a stillness so absolute that they have to be experienced to be believed. In moments like these the Antarctic offers a display of beauty hardly matched by anything else in the world.
I was lucky enough to spend 12 days around Livingston island where the Bulgarian Antarctic base is. I was perhaps equally surprised as some of you might be that we won’t be going further into the continent but remain within the limits of the Antarctic peninsula. For the reasons above, there are few bases beyond 70° latitude, especially ones manned year round (the US and Russia are among them, naturally). And although the conditions were no where near as drastic as the ones described above, it was no walk in the park despite that it was summer. I can only imagine what it must be like going further south in the tougher months of the year…
Sunrise over Buenos Aires as we were catching a flight down to Punta Arenas. South America is the easiest way to reach Antarctica, though you also can from South Africa and New Zealand.
Our ship Hesperides (part of the Spanish Armada) that got us across to our final destination. What an amazing vessel that was, I will likely do a separate post just on it. And it had a great captain and crew, such welcoming people! I got to practice my Spanish 🙂
The Beagle channel was quite calm, but the sky had ominous clouds hanging around… not quite what you want to see knowing you’re about to spend 2 days in the Drake passage.
If you wonder what you do on a ship for 3 days, this is a large part of it 😉 All that rocking about makes you a bit dizzy and napping helps, especially after a big lunch.
Last bit of land around us shot around 6am before we head for open water. This is Tierra del Fuego (literally “Fire Land”), quite a breathtaking place that somewhat reminded me of Milford Sound in terms of the scale and beauty.
Sunset over Drake that lasted for an hour and a half. We are far enough south by this point that the sun is moving slowly close to the horizon line. We were really lucky with the weather, Drake was calm with waves no more than 2m (crew members told me they often see ones over 10m so this was quite good in fact) and little cloud cover.
Almost two days into the voyage, you start stumbling upon the icebergs peacefully floating around. This multicolored one was particularly interesting, that arch almost seemed man made. The air also changes and now has a certain chill about it as well, it’s hard to describe.
You can’t get off the ship in one of the Zodiac boats unless you put this special submersion suit (lovingly dubbed the Teletubby!) which is quite tough to get into to — it has to protect you should you fall in the freezing water after all. You also double wrap all your stuff in plastic bags, just to be on the safe side. You might be wondering why there are 2 suitcases and who would go with one to Antarctica — believe me, I was too.
Finally after 7 days of traveling we’re at the Bulgarian base. What you see are the 3 main buildings — there are 2 chapels to the right of the frame and another 2 smaller buildings under the snow. Back in the day (this was the 24th Bulgarian expedition, the first one was back in the 80s) this whole area was mostly rock, but with climate change came the snows and it is exceedingly harder to keep those 3 from going under as well.
Speaking of the base, this is the base commander, Dancho. A seasoned Antarctica veteran, he kept things under control.
The first couple of days were spent walking around as much as possible. On my first “night” (there are no nights in this time of year technically, the sun only goes down for a couple of hours and it’s close to the horizon so you can always see quite well) I was rewarded with this beautiful sunset that lasted for 2 hours! Yup, Antarctica can be a photographer’s dream 😉
One of the chapels, shot around 2am. It’s as dark as it got while I was there. The shovel you see in the lower left corner is where we had dug up the snow to get to one of the old shacks that I mentioned.
Incredible colors of the sky at dusk. It’s interesting to note here how quickly the weather changes. I was setting up the tripod to take the photo and it was completely still, no wind whatsoever. Literally 10 seconds later, completely out of nowhere a gush of wind hit me and within 2 minutes it was blowing hard, making it extremely difficult to keep the camera stable. 10 minutes later the sky was completely grey and started snowing… welcome to Antarctica.
(I imagine that by this point the first song is over so you should play this one. I wouldn’t call it “typically” Antarctica-esque, but it kept popping throughout the trip and it’s certainly a fun and adventure enticing tune.)
Chinstrap penguins! Yes, they are indeed just as cute in real life as well 🙂
But so was this guy! The smell that comes from them is quite punchy, but they are fun to observe.
Actually most of the time it’s quite cloudy, but that makes for some exciting shots.
Not sure if it was the UV light or what, but sometimes you could see this incredible purple skies at sundown.
This place is a minimalist photographer’s heaven essentially.
For a scale of reference, this face of the glacier was probably well over 50-60m high.
Mountains in the distance… sadly there would have been no way for me to climb. For one, my technical abilities are not quite there yet, but more importantly — these places are largely untouched by people. So it’s very dangerous to walk around on your own or try to ascend, you never know when you can fall in a crevasse never to be found.
Doesn’t mean you can’t wander around though, within the approved safe limits.
Kamen, one of the old timers who’s been coming to Antarctica for years. We’re inside one of the buried buildings that used to be these guys’ home back in the day so he was reminiscing about the older days. The shack (called the Lame Dog Hut, interestingly) has actually been declared as Antarctic heritage and is now an official part of the Bulgarian History Museum 🙂
After a few days I wanted to go further out and do a bit of exploring so it was time to gear up.
You can never go out on your own past certain boundaries so one of the guys was kind / stupid enough to agree to go with me. We put a tent, a couple of sleeping bags, and some provisions in the sleigh and off we went. The weather wasn’t on our side, sadly, as it snowed a lot and the wind picked up quite a bit so this was one of the few shots I was able to take.
The snow storm caught up with us at some point so we dug up, which took a good couple of hours. The weather in the next two days wasn’t great so we didn’t move further, but rather stayed in and got out in the few opportunities that we were given. This sunny moment was a total rarity, 10 minutes later it was all cloudy again and the wind was blowing.
What we had crossed the previous day… quite a sight, especially with those sun spots! They were darting across the snow covered glacier quite fast.
On the second afternoon we were able to go out and do a bit of exploring, which included skiing down this great slope. Tough conditions though, heavy snow that made it hard to control your ski. Still fun 🙂
We went to this rookery and came across this cute fella — a southern elephant seal.
Some of them can get angry if you get too close.
Keeping the tradition of doing stupid s*** in crazy locations, much like in Nepal at the top of Gokyo Ri 😉 This was actually a promise I had made to a friend to support her new swimwear with a cause business called Rebel where part of the proceeds of each pair goes towards the conservation of a certain endangered species. The design I’m wearing is with penguins, naturally 🙂
Victory photo on our return from the camping trip which was marked by the severe winds and snow storm that hit us. I had never been in a whiteout before, thank goodness for GPS because you couldn’t see more than 2-3 meters away. I could barely see Bojo at times (you’re supposed to walk some distance apart in case one falls in a crevasse or something).
Although it seems quite calm, it was hard to remain standing for this photo. The wind that had been blowing the whole night had created some interesting snow patterns.
A golden sunset with the light hitting the glacier across the bay.
One of the mornings I woke up to notice there was an island in the distance where I had seen nothing in the past week. On a particularly clear day when all the clouds are gone the atmosphere is so clear that you can see it they told me. It turns out this is 130km away, mind boggling really! And I thought you could see far out in Iceland with its 50km…
A lot of those fun facts like the one above came from people like Vasko who has been part of the expedition since the early days. A true encyclopedia of knowledge!
On our way back we were lucky enough to get a chance to spend a day on Deception, a horseshoe shaped active volcano island which last erupted in 1970. I will certainly do a separate post just on it because it was fascinating to walk around.
On Deception we went to the biggest rookery I have seen — thousands upon thousands of penguins below us. So worth the 3-hour trek 🙂
One penguin to rule them all.
The last sunset on the way back to South America… I almost want to call it the Eye of God.
No better way to spend December 31st than climbing Cerro Guanaco (near Ushuaia, the south most city in the world), the view from the top of which lets you marvel at the beauty of Patagonian peaks all around you. It was a fitting way to end the trip.
I should hopefully bring you more photos and stories from Antarctica soon… ish 😉
Stay tuned and share!