The prospect of an Antarctic journey is sure to conjure an inescapable sense of adventure in even the most seasoned traveler. Award-winning photographer and journalist Caryn B. Davis knows this feeling well, because her travel bug runs deep. A former producer, writer, and cameraperson for television documentaries, Davis shifted cameras and careers, in 2000, to specialize in architectural and travel photography.
“My dream has always been to travel the world and take pictures and write about it,” she says. “And that seems to be happening with regularity right now, at this moment in my life.” Her newest adventure is a January 2020 Antarctic voyage timed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of what was initially called Palmer Land upon its discovery by American adventurer Nathaniel Palmer, in 1820.
We spoke with Davis while she was up to her ears in preliminary research—not to mention heaps of photo equipment—as she geared up for her trip and planned for several freelance magazine assignments. To learn how best to prepare for adventure travel, get timely packing tips, cold-weather clothing recommendations, and advice about travel-oriented photo and media products, read on through our Q&A with Davis below.
Jill Waterman: What first inspired you to take an Antarctic trip?
Caryn B. Davis: I've always wanted to go to Antarctica. In my early twenties, I was working in the film and video archives at Mystic Seaport, and I saw a classified ad in the back of WoodenBoat magazine, looking for brave souls to sail around the world, starting in New Zealand. I thought, “Oh, that's me!” So, I flew to New Zealand to meet the boat, with no idea what would happen after that. We stayed in New Zealand getting the boat ready for a month. After we set sail, I think I was on the boat for a week, before the owner reneged on our deal. I got off at Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. This is home to the Bounty mutineer descendants, so their culture is a mix of their Polynesian and British ancestors. It’s a fascinating place, and I stayed for four months. I had all my video camera equipment with me, so I decided to shoot a documentary about the island and its people while I was there.
While I was in New Zealand, someone told me that New Zealand had a Support Services Center in Antarctica. So, after returning to the states, I applied for work there. I didn't get the job, but the idea of going to Antarctica has been floating around ever since. I've traveled a lot and visited a lot of places solo, and I've always been fascinated by how people live and work in other countries and climates, especially in extreme hot and cold climates.
So, this is fulfilling a dream from way back then.
Yes, it really is. Ever since my first big adventure I've been trying to figure out ways to get paid to travel. I always wanted to be a photographer, but I was a writer first. Because of my ability to write, I'm able to pitch story ideas and create packages for magazines to buy the images and the text. After this current Antarctic trip came up, I started pitching stories, which is something I do a lot. Every time I travel, I send pitches out to a lot of magazines. Two years ago, I went to the Azores and sold a story to the New York Times. And that helped reimburse some of my expenses from the trip.
So, how many countries have you traveled to over the years?
I think I've been to at least 50. It's all about adventure for me, I'm hooked. In 1999 I did video work for Orbis International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating blindness. We traveled to nine Third World countries on board the Orbis DC-10, which was converted to a flying eye hospital. I thought I'd get it out of my system then, but I still haven't resolved that travel bug, and I don't think I ever will. Let's say I could only do one thing the rest of my life. If I had to choose between travel and photography, I would choose travel.
Is there any special significance to your upcoming Antarctic trip?
There’s a famous explorer and sailing captain, Nathaniel Palmer, who was a seal hunter from Stonington, Connecticut, which is near Mystic. He was the first American explorer to discover mainland Antarctica, in 1820. Since this is the 200th anniversary of Palmer’s discovery, Abercrombie and Kent, who I am going with, developed a Special Edition voyage in collaboration with Mystic Seaport Museum in commemoration of Palmer’s voyage.
The other exciting thing about this trip is that we catch the boat for Antarctica from Tierra del Fuego. I've always wanted to go to Tierra del Fuego, ever since I worked at Mystic Seaport, where I had the privilege of archiving and cataloging a lot of film footage that was donated to the museum. There was a gentleman named Irving Johnson who had sailed around the world seven times. He went around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America. He talked about Tierra Del Fuego being called the land of fire. When it was discovered, they saw flames on the land as a way that people kept themselves warm. So that's how it got its name, which really fascinated me.
How long will you be in Antarctica and what’s your itinerary?
I leave on January 15th and come back on the 31st. I arrive in Buenos Aires on the 16th and have a day and a half in Argentina, where I’ll take an architectural tour of the city. That should be interesting, since I photograph architecture. Then we take a puddle jumper to Tierra del Fuego on the 17th, board the boat there on the 18th, and set sail on the 19th. To get to Antarctica, we travel through the Drake Passage, which is 600 miles of challenging terrain because it's the confluence of three oceans. That's where people are likely to get sea sick, even though the boat has stabilizers.
I guess it takes two days before we’ll start seeing the Antarctic peninsula, since the first sightings are on the 21st. I've been looking at maps to really understand where we're going, because Antarctica is huge. We're basically just going to the peninsula and hitting different points along the way, weather permitting. We start making our way back through the Drake Passage again on the 28th, but don't hit land until the 30th. It's a long, long journey.
How much and what kind of research have you been doing to prepare for this trip?
I’ve watched a ton of documentaries and read a couple of books. I’ve read a lot about Ernest Shackleton and used to own the documentary video. I've also visited the Palmer Museum in Stonington. The cruise line, Abercrombie and Kent, sent a lot of really great information about how to prepare, what to pack, what you're going to be seeing, as well as seasickness recommendations. And I found an article in Afar magazine where the editor talked about what clothes she bought, which led me to a website where I got some great sweaters. So, it's all kinds of research, not just about what's going on down there.
What’s been the most insightful thing you’ve discovered from your reading?
One of the people on the voyage will be Dr. James McClintock, author of the book Lost Antarctica. He's the naturalist on board, but he also works doing research at the Palmer Research Center, in Antarctica. He’s been traveling to Antarctica for about 30 years. Currently, he’s studying different species in the water, because the water there is so pristine and clear.
I'm no scientist, so this is just very limited information from what I've gleaned, but there are certain chemical compounds in some of the marine life that only exist in those waters, which they think can potentially be made into drugs to fight diseases like cancer, the flu, AIDs, cystic fibrosis, and so on.
Are there other notable things you’ve learned about Antarctica on the 200th anniversary of its discovery?
Antarctica is a hot topic right now. If you think about it, people have only been going there for 200 years, and yet we've conquered everywhere else in the world. This is what makes it so interesting: There are no permanent residents or indigenous culture, no commercial industries or cities. It's not owned by any nation, but rather governed, if you will, by the Antarctic treaty system, which has been set up for the express purpose of scientific investigation, and all results must be publicly shared. It's the honor system, and any military activity, claims to land, or nuclear testing is prohibited. And that goes for the tourism boats, and how many people they let ashore at a time. So, while we're busy building border walls to keep our neighbors out, Russian and American scientists can work side-by-side there and put away their political differences.
Antarctica was not founded on capitalism and it can't support it, because there are no cities, no oil, there is nothing to conquer or take over. You must be there in the spirit of peaceful cooperation. Because the environment is so harsh, it means the difference between life and death. Antarctica has a lot to teach us in that regard. Scientists believe it's the earth’s early warning system for climate change.
Packing and Gear
What do you generally pack for gear when you're going on a travel junket?
Truthfully, I pack as little as I can, since I like to travel with one bag for personal items, and one camera bag. I shoot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and I always pack two bodies. I also use all Canon L series lenses, and I usually pack my EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM and my EF 70-200mm f/4 L USM with a Canon Extender 1.4X III. And I might take a flash; I have an older Canon Speedlight 580 EX. And then I have all my memory cards and batteries and chargers.
Do you have a preferred type and capacity memory card?
I usually use Lexar and I just ordered a bunch of Lexar 64GB 1066x Compact Flash cards and 64GB SD cards for the other slot in my 5D Mark III. I'm just going to shoot raw and back up to both. I previously used 32-gig cards, but I definitely want more memory for this trip. But I don't like to put all my eggs in one basket. It terrifies me to get larger capacity cards.
So, are you shooting only stills or will you shoot some video as well?
I'll primarily be shooting stills, but I just bought a new Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max, so I'll probably shoot a little video using my phone.
Will you be bringing a tripod or other means of support?
No, not on this trip. I have in the past, but I talked to the photographers on board, and they advised me that it's not necessary or practical. A tripod is cumbersome and since we’ll be on a ship, it will generally be moving. Also, there will be 24 hours of sunlight when I’m there, so there should be plenty of light. And there's a limitation on how much you can bring in terms of the weight and size of the luggage you check and carry, especially on the small plane from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego.
What are you bringing for backing up, are you bringing any hard drives?
I've been thinking about that because I don't own a laptop. But I decided not to buy one because I didn’t want to carry more stuff on this trip. A B&H sales associate recommended a device called a HyperDrive Color Space UDMA3 wireless storage drive, so I bought that. You insert your CF or SD card into it and you can see it digitally downloading on a screen, so you know that your card’s downloaded. You can also review your images on it. I’ve also been searching for a good power pack for plugging things in when my batteries die, for my iPad and cell phone.
Did you get any recommendations for that?
Yes, the good folks at B&H were really helpful when I explained what I needed. They recommended two things, the Mophie Encore Plus for my phone and the Belkin BOOSTCHARGE Power Bank 10K with a Lightning Connector. I went with the Belkin.
Were there other recommendations you got?
A polarizing filter and/or a UV filter is recommended. The polarizing filter is not absolutely necessarily but UV, definitely. The weather can turn on a dime, so you definitely want your gear protected from moisture.
So, are there any pieces of gear that you would like to bring with you that you're going to set aside because of weight and space restrictions?
I decided against a laptop, as I mentioned, because I can only bring 17 pounds and one bag on the plane. I don't know how much my camera bag is going to weigh yet, but I'm hoping to buy one that's only 3 pounds. I bet the rest of my gear is going to equal that fast though. And the backup hard drive, batteries, chargers, and portable power bank will all add to the weight.
But, despite the weight issue, I’d like to be able to write stories while I’m there. I find it’s really helpful to keep track of your emotions and what you're seeing in the moment. It's hard to recall the excitement weeks later, after you return. So, I bought a keyboard for my Apple iPad, which should allow me to easily type stories on location.
What are you bringing for a camera bag to carry all your stuff in?
That’s been one of my biggest challenges. There are really no lightweight, 100% waterproof bags, so there are many ways to go. You can buy a dry bag and put your camera bag in there, but that's not practical to get at your gear easily, and it’s not protected from getting banged around. There are water-resistant bags that are pretty good and have separate rain coats, which I’ve been looking into. I also need a bag that can accommodate everything I need to carry on the plane on the trip down and back. There are so many bag manufacturers, but I still had a lot of trouble finding something that fits the bill. After much searching, I finally bought a Tenba Solstice 24L camera backpack. I originally bought the 20L version, but it was too small. Tenba has a great video showing the bag’s attributes and what it could carry, which was very helpful.
What about clothing? Do you have any recommendations for cold weather clothing gear?
I’ve got a huge packing list, and I’ve recently been ordering very warm but lightweight Cashmere and Merino wool sweaters. I’ve also been finding wool socks and those kinds of things to try and be as lightweight as possible, but as warm as possible. You really need to prepare for something like this, you can't just go willy-nilly, because when you're on the ship you have access to nothing.
The cruise line works with a company called Ship to Shore Traveler, and as part of the voyage they give you complementary rubber pants, rubber boots, and ski poles, as well as a waterproof backpack and a jacket that’s good for 30 below. So, you don't have to take up luggage space for that.
What you need to wear under that is basically a base layer and a mid-weight layer, which are kind of like two sets of long underwear. And wool socks, a hat and scarf, or things to keep you warm above the neck. I bought something to cover my nose, and mitts instead of gloves, because I'm told that mitts keep your hands warmer since your fingers are together. The brand I bought are called Meteor mitts, which are especially designed for photographers. You fold them down to gain access to your fingers.
Really good sunglasses are also important, because it's so bright. I bought a pair of Maui Jim's, which I heard are the very best. One thing you might not think about when you're going into the cold is suntan lotion. Because the sun is so powerful, you can get burned very easily, even in places like under your nostrils.
The other great consideration is what’s on your feet. You’ve got to make sure your shoes are warm, and have good traction, for when the captain announces there's wildlife outside, and you run out on deck to take a photo.
I don't want to miss anything when I’m on the boat. The Humpback whales are going to be feeding that time of year and will hopefully be jumping like crazy. January, in particular, is a great time of year for wildlife there.
So, what has been the most surprising thing you've learned or discovered in planning or preparing for this trip?
I think it’s how climate change is happening a lot faster than we thought. Scientists have been watching and studying those changes for more than 30 years and it’s real. Also, how important Antarctica is to the health of planet, and how much there is to learn there. I just had no idea.
Is there any aspect of the trip that makes you feel anxious or unresolved at this point?
Yeah, I think just the packing... But, truthfully. I'm very, very excited. I can barely contain myself. It's been months and months since I’ve known I've been going, but I'm the kind of person who doesn’t really get excited until I'm actually at the airport.
Do you have any final thoughts to share about this adventure, and travel in general?
Do you want my tagline? I really believe this: Traveling broadens the mind, expands the heart and feeds the soul. And that's why I do it. I’m certain that Antarctica won't disappoint in this regard.
Learn more about Caryn B. Davis and her work on her website. During her journey, Davis will be posting regularly to her Instagram feed. Follow along at @carynbdavis. Click here for Part 2, A Quiet Spot among the Wildlife: Caryn B. Davis's Antarctic Photo and Travel Tips.
Have you ever been on an Antarctic photo expedition? Tell us about it in a comment below!