I have a strange job. I am a professional Instagrammer, travel influencer, photographer, marketer, freelance social media marketer, traveller, entrepreneur, a businesswoman, creative, a person. I find it difficult to define my ‘job’ because I masterminded this life for myself. A life filled with travel and photos and incredible adventures. But there has been no greater adventure than Antarctica!
When a client of mine casually mentioned that they represent Aurora Expeditions I casually (frantically) mentioned that Antarctica was high on my bucket list and I’d do just about anything for the opportunity to visit. Some months of discussion later I was sitting in my living room packing my suitcase and feeling very overwhelmed and very grateful. Antarctica represents true travel to me. A place that is as wild as it is unpredictable. A place not overrun with people, not really inhabited at all really. A place heaving with wildlife, untouched and unspoiled. I did next to no research, packed my bags according to the very helpful packing guide sent over in my pre-departure documents and next thing I knew I was on the plane to Ushuaia, Argentina.
An adventure awaits.
This was to be an experience unlike any other. From the moment I stepped aboard the ship I felt a sense of excitement. The guests, the crew, the ship itself. The energy was palatable. Because no two trips to Antarctica are ever the same, so nobody truly knows what to expect. Not me on my first voyage, not guests on their second or third and not even our expedition leader, Howard Whelan, who has done 23 seasons on the icy continent.
Serene on the one hand, but wholly dangerous and inhospitable on the other.
Our first afternoon was filled with information briefings, drills (we even boarded a life boat for practice) and much mingling and getting to know each other. Small group travel means it’s quite possible to get to a first name basis with every other guest by the end of the voyage, and this was actually a really lovely aspect to the trip I hadn’t expected.
After dinner we went to bed knowing we would wake up on the dreaded Drake Passage. One of the wildest stretches of water in the world. Although Aurora Expeditions offer options to skip the Drake, for many travellers it is a rite of passage to reach the continent. When I saw that the crew had helpfully scattered vomit bags around the whole ship, I admit to being mildly concerned. But to be honest, the first crossing passed by uneventfully. There is a doctor on board, everyone carries sea sickness tablets and there’s lectures and movies to keep you occupied.
Sea crossings, a rite of passage.
So after two days and three nights at sea, we arrived. I find it difficult, even now, to articulate what it feels like to board a Zodiac for the first time to cruise around giant icebergs and spot penguins and Antarctic sea birds. It’s almost like being on another planet. It feels otherworldly down there. Removed from the rest of the world. Serene on the one hand, but wholly dangerous and inhospitable on the other. Crazily stunning, but stark and cold. To be honest it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
My first penguin spotting.
Over the two weeks that I explored Antarctica and South Georgia, I had my camera in hand, but I couldn’t tell you of a time that I set up a shot. Usually I am assessing the scene, thinking of my composition, rethinking elements and trying different angles, and gradually getting to a frame that I like. All of that went out the window on this trip. I had my camera in my hand, and I know that I used it, but it was more like an extension of myself. I didn’t think, I just shot. I didn’t analyse, I just pointed and captured that which was right in front of me. And I didn’t review my images or edit as I went. My spare time on the ship was spent enjoying the ship, and the company of new friends. I went to the lectures, the movies, the trivia night, Captain’s drinks, the fancy dress party and even karaoke night. I did not know what I had captured, truly, until I had left.
Point and shoot.
Reviewing my images was actually a revelation. Antarctica and South Georgia are so stunning that I was able to spend two weeks photographing them without actually being distracted by my camera at all and walking away with some of my favourite images of my career. It is simply that beautiful.
One of my favourite photos of my career.
So here is my advice for anyone going on a trip to Antarctica and South Georgia. Firstly, don’t overthink your photography. Almost every person on board my voyage had a digital camera of some sort. From entry level right up to very professional kits. Everyone brings a camera! But don’t let your camera distract you from being present for the moment a leopard seal swims near your boat, or 1,000 Adelie penguins are poised to jump into the sea, or you’re following two humpback whales past a sea of icebergs. Those memories will stick with you for a lifetime. Spend some time before the voyage learning your camera’s in’s and out’s so that you can bang it into a semi-automatic mode like aperture priority and shoot on auto pilot. You will still come home with incredible shots, trust me. But you’ll also come home with a deep sense of connection to this land.
Don’t miss the leopard seal!
My second piece of advice is to pack well! Aurora Expeditions were great with their packing list, and I took their advice on everything. I also made sure to bring my own snacks. Although the food is super delicious, and plentiful, I am the sort of person that misses my favourite foods when I go away and there is no corner store to run to for a block of dark chocolate. Haha. I brought lots of spare camera batteries so that I didn’t have to worry too much about charging, and I also packed my swimmers. This might sound strange to you, but you are definitely going to want to do the polar plunge. YOLO! Oh, and I packed three sets of merino base layers and I’m super glad I did. If conditions are right, the expedition team will set up a bum slide on certain landings and it is probably the most fun you can have on the peninsula. No matter how waterproof your outer layer is, it probably won’t withstand sliding down an icy hill on your butt.
Pack well and be prepared. Photo by Madeleine Jones.
Thirdly, run cold! If you’re prone to sea sickness, one of the best pieces of advice that I have ever been given is that prevention is the only cure. Once you feel seasick it’s generally too late to reverse the inevitable. Instead, think about preventing the feeling from even starting. And the best way to do this is to run your body temperature cold. I spent most of my time on the ship in T-shirts and jeans and I turned the heater off in my room on the first day. Although I am prone to sea sickness, I am proud to say that I didn’t have a problem at all on this trip, despite the multi-day sea crossings.
Don’t rug up on the ship!
Lastly, change tables for every meal! Although you’ll inevitably find your favourite people and your favourite spot, it’s fun getting to know everyone in the meantime. I ended up spending time with a doctor who makes a mean pot of coffee, a retired accountant with a penchant for photography, an Australian family with the coolest kids I’ve ever met, a hilarious American who loves cruises and an Indian couple who have invited me to stay at their home in Bangkok. Antarctica attracts some pretty cool people!
Make new friends.
As I get older, I am leaning even more strongly towards experiences over things. I think that this is what attracts me to travel. I’d rather have a million memories than a hundred pairs of shoes. As I grow older it is moments like I experienced in Antarctica that will stick with me. The time that two fighting elephant seals squashed my friend’s tripod or the time I danced the nut bush on the deck of a ship in South Georgia or the time I retraced Ernest Shackleton’s journey from Elephant Island. To me, there is no greater joy on this planet than the joy of discovering a new place. And there is no place more exceptional than Antarctica.
Look out for elephant seals.
Words by Lauren Bath.