Cold Front
Daryl Hawk's Photo Expedition To Antarctica

It's a long way to go for pictures. And you really have to want to go. You have to prepare, make plans, take the initiative. You don't just wake up one morning and think, you know, it would really be great to take some photos in Antarctica; now where did I put those heavy socks?

"It has always been a dream for me," says travel and documentary photographer Daryl Hawk. "Antarctica is the last frontier on the planet."

It may well be, but it is nonetheless eminently reachable: there are lots of polar expedition companies who'll be happy to arrange a journey. Hawk hooked up with one and made the 10 day trip last November.

"You can go only from November to April--that's the season for travel to Antarctica," Hawk says. First he flew to Buenos Aires, then took a small plane to the island of Tierra del Fuego, off the southern tip of South America. There, with some 40 other adventure-minded passengers from around the world, he boarded the expedition ship for a two-day crossing of the Drake Passage--"the roughest waters in the world"--into the Antarctic convergence, "where warm waters meet cold waters. That's when you start getting the feeling of being in another world. At first you see small ice floes, then icebergs, then the South Shetland Islands, and the next thing you see is the continent of Antarctica."

The passengers spent a few days doing landings on the South Shetland Islands, observing and photographing wildlife--"mostly penguins and seals"--and then the ship made its way closer to the continent.

"We didn't know if we'd be able to set foot on the continent," Hawk says. "Ice dictates everything in Antarctica, and because we were the first expedition of the season, no one knew what the ice conditions would be like or how thick the ice would be." The ship he was on wasn't classified as an icebreaker: "It was an ice-strengthened ship, which means it could push through maybe nine or 10" deep ice, but not much thicker than that." Fortunately, the ship was able to get through the ice and the travelers made several landings on the continent.

"Landings" mean that the expedition members leave the home base of the ship, board Zodiacs--the life raft-like open rubber boats that accommodate about eight people--and make their way through ice floes and icebergs to their destination: first the Shetlands, then the Antarctic continent. "We did about three landings per day," Hawk says. Once on land, the members explored and photographed...and kept a wary eye on the weather.

"Conditions change so quickly," Hawk says. "One minute it looks perfectly clear and the next a snowstorm can hit. That happened a few times, and once we were stuck in the Zodiac for a while, not able to get back to the ship. We lost visibility, and one of the Zodiac boats got separated from the others in a maze of icebergs. We were in radio contact with the ship the whole time, but we couldn't get through the ice to get back to it. It took hours to convince the captain to come in closer to get us. He was really hesitant because he wasn't sure how deep the water was there, but finally he did come in close enough for us to reach the ship."

Overall, Hawk terms the expedition "comfortable, but not luxurious," adding, "You've got to be fairly hardy and adventurous to want to do this. The temperatures aren't incredibly cold, but they do get down to below zero. And the other thing you've got to remember is that the ship is always rocking and rolling--meals are moving around on the tables and when you take a shower you've got to be holding onto a bar the whole time."
Not to mention that the landings themselves can be a bit tricky. "They're wet landings, and you have to have boots almost up to your hips or you're going to be very uncomfortable--you're stepping in freezing cold water to get onto the land."

But once land was reached--either on their first explorations of the South Shetland Islands or the tours of the continent itself--all the effort paid off. "Because we were the first boat down there for the season, we knew we wouldn't see any other people," Hawk says, "and that's how everyone wanted to see Antarctica. Other than the scientists who live down there at research stations, we had the continent pretty much to ourselves." Lured by the tales of the first Antarctic explorers, Hawk didn't want to find "Antarctica: The Tourist Attraction." And he didn't. "It's earth's last true wilderness."

Once he got there, he was prepared, photographically and otherwise, for the challenges of cold weather and hostile terrain. Hawk, a seasoned adventure traveler, is a member of the Explorers Club, and he frequently lectures and writes about travel and documentary photography. He also produces and hosts The Unconventional Traveler, a cable TV show shown in his home state of Connecticut.

But this trip was something special and it required a lot of thinking and planning. When you're traveling to "earth's last true wilderness," you're not going to be able to pop into a local store and pick up extra film and batteries, or, for that matter, pick up a loaner lens while your prime optic is being repaired. "And because of the weather and temperature, I had to think a lot about clothing, too."

Ultimately, Hawk decided that simple solutions were the best. Stick with manual basics--two Nikon FE2 bodies that he had checked and lubricated before departing--"it's the camera I've used for 20 years"--and a few lenses, including a 28-200mm zoom. "I was able to get almost everything I wanted with that one lens, which is a key to being successful in a place like Antarctica. With snow blowing around you don't want to be changing lenses a lot."

He also brought along lots of 100, 200, and 400 Fujichrome. "I was expecting all different kinds of weather and light, from bright to heavy overcast, so I wanted the film speeds I'd need for any conditions."

Reloading the cameras wasn't a problem: "The temperature varied from zero to 20 below, maybe 30 below with the wind chill, which is not really extreme, and I was able to load the cameras right there on the ice. One thing I was really careful about, though, was to be sure to advance and rewind the film very slowly--cold makes film very brittle and I didn't want to snap it." It goes without saying that this was no place for a motor drive.

Hawk had expected his biggest problem with the cold would be battery drain, so he brought lots of extras. "But I kept the camera inside my jacket when I wasn't shooting, bringing it out only when I was going to use it, and my body heat helped keep the batteries alive. I ended up using relatively few batteries."

A lens cloth was handy for wiping off condensation, and UV filters were used on all the lenses. As you might expect, he also used a polarizing filter (no pun intended). "Ninety percent of the time I was aiming my camera toward ice or water, so I used the polarizer and bracketed exposures, especially for the most important shots." To determine exposures, he aimed his camera at his hand, took a reading and opened up one stop. "It turned out to be pretty much right on every time."

A key piece of equipment was his waterproof Tamrac camera bag. "The Zodiac landings were invitations to get wet," Hawk says, "and the most important thing I did was to bring that bag to keep the saltwater and spray off my cameras."

Keeping the water off him, and the cold at bay, were equally important. "You've heard this advice before: dress in layers. Forget the biggest, heaviest, bulkiest coat; layers keep in more heat. I wore a long sleeve shirt, a sweater, and my waterproof parka, and most of the time that's all I needed. If it was extra cold, I could add another shirt or sweater.

"I wore blue jeans, with thermal underwear, heavy socks, and rubber boots that came up to thigh height. The boots were especially important for the landings: you could be up to your knees or even higher in freezing water when you stepped out of a Zodiac."

Finally, a neat little item for the actual taking of the photographs: "I have a pair of Glommits, which are fingerless gloves with mitten-like hoods. You flip the little hoods back and your fingers are free to work the camera, then flip them back on to keep your fingers warm. They were the only gloves I wore."

Ultimately, of course, all the preparation and occasional rough going was worth it. For any photographer, Antarctica is a grand adventure; for Hawk it was the long dreamed of trip of a lifetime.

Well, so far, anyway--he is, after all, an adventure photographer.