A Quiet Spot among the Wildlife: Caryn B. Davis's Antarctic Photo and Travel Tips

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For more than six months, Caryn B. Davis immersed herself in everything she could learn about Antarctica in preparation for an epic photo expedition in January 2020. In Part 1 of our Q&A with Davis, she offered advice on how to pack and what gear to bring.

To come full circle with her adventures, we recently caught up with Davis to find out how she and her gear fared during her long journey and under the intrepid conditions of the Great White Continent. For details about her experiences, and to see some photos and learn her strategy for successful wildlife pictures, read on in this second installment of our Q&A with Davis.

Photographs © Caryn B. Davis

Jill Waterman: What were the dates of your Antarctic trip, and how did things go with all your baggage and photo gear while in transit?

Caryn B. Davis: I left the U.S. on January 15 and returned on January 31. Whenever I travel, I usually only take one bag plus my camera bag, but this time I added a carry-on bag containing all my cold weather gear as a precaution in case my checked bag didn’t arrive when I did. Luckily, there were no issues with that.

The El Ateneo Grand Splendid, Buenos Aires

Before embarking on your Antarctic voyage, you spent a few days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Were there any particular photographic highlights from that part of the trip?

I wish I had more time in Buenos Aires because it’s such a historically rich, vibrant city with amazing architecture. I did photograph the El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which was originally built as a theater in 1919 and was transformed into a bookstore in the early 2000s. It’s just beautiful, and what a great place to hang out and read books.

You flew from Buenos Aires to the southernmost city of Ushuaia in a small aircraft. Were baggage restrictions strictly enforced on that flight?

They were supposed to be, although they were not enforced on our flight. We were restricted to 17 pounds carry on and 44 pounds in checked baggage. I was over by six pounds in total but it was no problem. Yet, I did hear that weight restrictions were enforced on the charter flight before ours.

Iceberg off the coast of Detaille Island

How did the ship and passengers fare when traversing the rough seas of the Drake Passage on your way to Antarctica and coming back?

We were so lucky. On the way down to the Antarctic Peninsula it wasn’t that bad. Some people did get seasick, and some got sick from wearing a seasickness patch. I took seasickness tablets and felt fine. The trip before ours had 40-foot seas that were so rough, the captain confined everyone to their cabins, and all meals were served there as well. On the way back, it was really calm, although you could still feel the movement of the ship. After 12 days at sea, I think we were used to it by then. When we were docked in Tierra del Fuego during our last night on the boat, I actually missed the movement of being rocked to sleep.

Icebergs, Marguerite Bay, The Gullet

How many days did you spend cruising off the Antarctic coast, and how often did you venture onto land in the zodiacs? Do you have any tips about keeping your gear safe and dry during these excursions?

It took us two days to reach the Peninsula. After that, we did two excursions a day, weather permitting—so roughly 14 excursions in all. Sometimes we went ashore, and at other times we explored by zodiac. We were really lucky with weather. It only rained once, and we had no snow. My Tenba Solstice 24L Camera Backpack is water resistant with its weather cover, which I used on the one rainy day. But as a general rule, I didn’t carry it on my back when in the zodiac in case we encountered waves. Instead I swung it around to the front of my body. This way, I also had access to my gear. I did take photos when it was raining, keeping the camera under my waterproof coat so it was still readily available when not in use. When I stood up to take photos, I swung the bag around to my back again, so it never touched the bottom of the boat, which was wet.

Davis racked her 70-200 zoom to its maximum magnification for this close encounter with a lone elephant seal on Jenny Island.

You put a lot of advance research into packing for your trip and choosing the right gear to bring. Was there anything you neglected to bring that you wished you had packed?

No, I really had that all sorted out. If I had known the weather was going to be so mild, I might have brought less. But when working in unpredictable weather conditions, it’s better to be safe than sorry. In terms of camera equipment, I wish I had purchased a 400mm lens for my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. There were limits in how close we could get to wildlife, and sometimes I wanted to be closer.

Did you have to do any troubleshooting with your gear at any point, or did everything perform as expected during your trip?

You can’t see my smile right now, but all my gear performed as it should!

To capture this group of elephant seals, Davis set her 70-200 zoom to 90mm on Jenny Island.

You packed a couple of zoom lenses with your cameras. Was there one lens, or a particular focal range, that you gravitated to most when making pictures?

Ninety-five percent of the time I used my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens with a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III, which increased the focal length to 280mm, while still retaining sharpness.

You also brought along polarizing and UV filters for your lenses. Did these get much use during your trip, and if so, under what conditions?

We rarely had sunny days. The light was soft and overcast and sometimes dim, so I opted for the UV filters to protect the lenses instead of the Circular Polarizing Filter, which would have required more light.

Gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island

Do you have any tips for making successful pictures of the wildlife you encountered when venturing ashore, or for photographing Antarctic landscapes?

While everyone was walking around sightseeing and trying to get photos of wildlife, often in groups, I would find a quiet spot away from it all and just sit and wait. Inevitability, the penguins would walk right up to me, and right past me. We were required to stay at least 15 feet away from them, but it was OK if they came close to us. I used the same strategy with the elephant seals. I wanted them to forget I was there. At first I overshot because I was excited and unsure how long all these different interactions would last, and I did not want to miss anything. But after a while, when I realized there was plenty of time and material, I became more selective. Also, the more time I took to observe, the more I saw.

Chinstrap penguins, Cierva Cove

Did you make many pictures of the surrounding land/seascape while cruising onboard the ship? If so, did you need to keep an eye on your shutter speed to avoid motion blur? Do you have recommendations for others about making successful pictures under these conditions?

I did take pictures on the ship and in the zodiacs as I mentioned. I’ve worked for a lot of boating magazines, so I’m used to taking photos on boats that move quite fast, faster than in the Antarctic. But yes, my shutter speed was always at a minimum of 1/1000-second. I learned a long time ago to keep the horizon line straight, so I did that as well. When photographing wildlife, I would adjust the shutter speed as needed depending on the animal’s movements. For example, we had breaching whales, so for that I went up to 1/1250. One photo I took of Chinstrap penguins swimming and diving was very hard to get because they are incredibly fast, and I wanted to catch them in mid air. For that shot I put my shutter on 1/1000-second and set the camera to continuous shooting mode, and it worked!

Iceberg, the Lemaire Channel

Since your trip coincided with summer in the southern hemisphere, you experienced nearly 24 hours of daylight. Did you make many pictures during nighttime hours, and if so, did this require any changes to your shooting process?

I loved the 24 hours of light. It was just a sight to see and experience. One night we were outside at 10:30 pm while going through the very scenic Lemaire Channel, but it was still plenty bright, so I didn’t have to make any special adjustments.

How did the HYPER HyperDrive ColorSpace UDMA 3 Wireless Storage Device perform for backing up your pictures?

It worked flawlessly, and I was able to preview the thumbnails, so I knew the images were on the drive and looked fine.

Icebergs near Cuverville Island

And how did your Tenba Solstice camera backpack work out, both during your time in transit and while adventuring and making pictures?

In transit it was fine. It fit in the overhead perfectly and I knew it was padded enough so the gear inside was safe, even if someone else put something on top, which is always a concern. It was comfortable and secure to wear when I was walking around Buenos Aires. Your gear is kept in the back pocket, so there is no way for anyone to get into your bag unless you take it off.

Were you satisfied with the winter clothing choices you made to bring along on the trip? Were there any clothing or personal items you didn’t have that you missed?

I was satisfied with everything I brought, although the ship was warmer than I thought it would be, so I did wish I had brought some lighter clothing.

Palmer Station, a U.S. research station on Anvers Island

I believe that at some point during your time in Antarctica a record high temperature of 65° Fahrenheit was recorded in the area. Was there any noticeable reaction to this among the scientists or other experts you encountered?

That was just after I came back, but it was 48° Fahrenheit the day we visited Palmer Station, where scientists are studying the effects of climate change. We did see calving glaciers as a result of global warming. We learned from the expedition team and from the scientists who have been coming down there for more than 20 years what changes are occurring. They are seeing ice receding, the Adélie penguin population declining, glaciers melting, land and sea temperatures rising, and so on.

Zodiacs in Crystal Sound, Antarctic Peninsula

The same week a huge slab of ice calved off the William Glacier near Palmer Station. Did you observe much calving activity during your voyage? If so, how would you best describe this in words?

We saw two calving glaciers. It’s kind of surreal. We have all heard about global warming, but when you witness it first hand there is no denying that it exists, and the speed at which it’s happening. We really have to help mitigate this right now. We are really, really running out of time.

Calving glacier in Neko Harbor

What was the most awe-inspiring sight you saw during your trip? Did you capture it in a photograph, or just record it as a memory in your mind’s eye?

For me, it was all about the icebergs. I have just never seen anything quite like them. Each was different in shape, size, and color, and, like snowflakes, every one was unique. Some were so massive you could not get your head around it. Every one was breathtaking. This is a case where the word “awesome” really applies.

Zodiac with visitors heading back to the ship, Neko Harbor

What was your most significant takeaway from your time in Antarctica?

Climate change. It’s real and it’s here. Even though Antarctica is far away, and it’s hard to believe what happens there can affect the rest of the planet, it can and it does. (Ironically, we are now also learning a lesson about the connectedness of everything from the Coronavirus.)

How was your reentry back to the winter climate and routine of life and work once you returned home? A story you wrote for Islands magazine ends with the following quote… In what ways did your trip to Antarctica change you?

“A lot of people come because they have been everywhere else. It doesn’t matter why they came, but it’s how they are changed while they are here,” says Suzana Machado D’Oliveira, A&K’s Expedition Director who has made more than 300 trips to the Antarctic. “They might not even know it by the time they leave the ship, but Antarctica does change people.”

When I returned, I was a lot calmer and more content than I had been in a long time. I can’t explain why exactly, but I felt at peace. It was really hard to re-acclimatize to life and make sense of it in some way. In my usual life here, I’m always moving at the speed of light. In Antarctica, the material world ceases to exist or retain its stranglehold. All you know is what is before you. You are not thinking about the past or the future. This forces you into the present moment, where you can fully experience your life. Being close to nature in the way I was, and seeing this profound beauty everywhere I looked, reminded me of what’s really important.

Learn how Davis prepared for her trip in Part 1 of our Q&A, Caryn B. Davis Packs Her Bags for a 200th Anniversary Antarctic Adventure. For more on Davis and her work, visit her website and check out her Instagram feed.

Have you ever experienced the lure of the Great White Continent? Tell us about it in a comment below!

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