Beyond the Polar Circle - Antarctica 2023

Antarctica - finally

The Antarctic Peninsula beyond the southern polar circle was the destination of my first trip in 2023. More or less it was a last minute decision and a last minute booking! As we had to cancel our Falkland Workshop, still due to Covid issues and to the more and more unpredictable behaviour of Latam, I suddenly had some spare weeks. And I never was in Antarctica proper and it was more than overdue to fill this gap! 

I tried to find a longer expedition on a smaller ship and to add some photography on Tierra del Fuego and, if possible in Chilean Patagonia for wildlife photography. The Sea Spirit was the vessel of choice. I sailed on her already to South Georgia guiding a group and it was a good experience (this is the blog covering this expedition). The start and end point was this time Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego. To add some days in the nearby national park Tierra del Fuego was easy, but including Punta Arenas proofed to be difficult.

It was impossible to include Punta Arenas, as it would have taken days to arrive there and very difficult to proceed to Buenos Aires. It is hard to understand, why Punta Arenas/Ushuaia is no destination for Aerolinas Argentinas or Latam. Sadly I had to say goodbye to my plans to renew my stock of Condors, Nandus and Guanacos. I have good material, but all is film based and now obsolete. But the research helped us solving another problem, but this is a different story.....

The final itinerary was easy: A flight via Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, stay some days before and one night after the cruise and finally fly back to Europe, again via Buenos Aires. Ushuaia is not my favourite place in Patagonia, but I wanted to give it another try! But the main reason to stay there was to cover the National Park Tierra del Fuego, which is a 45 min drive on a bus from Ushuaia. I must admit that I enjoyed staying in the National Park and for one or two nights even Ushuaia is a good choice.

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Many years ago, it must have been the early 80ties, I visited the park and it it was raining all the time, miserable conditions and no fun. But this time I loved it. It is easy walking and great coastal and forest photography and perfect to strech the legs after a long flight or after a cruise. If you love such an idea, it is highly recommended.

I did all the easier walks and all of them are great for photography and every walk is in a way very different. Only the more demanding and long hike to Cerro Guanaco is waiting for another stay!

Ushuaia is a strange town, it still has a bit of the atmosphere of a frontier town combined with lots of tourism. It is nice to experience it for a night or two, but I prefer Punta Arenas and I am still a bit sad, that I could not visit Punta this time! As it turned out, I will have the opportunity on the long Antarctica workshop in November, but I did not know this, when I booked this trip.

Hiking through the prestine forest, exploring the coastline covered with the remnants of the long gone indigenous sea nomands and watching the ever changing patagonian weather was just the right thing to do before heading to the white continent. The viewpoints, which can be accessed by bus are crowded and one needs a bit more solitude to get a feeling for this landscape. You will hardly be alone, but the bus crowds, often coming from the big cruise ships (I am talking of 500 to 2.500 pax), do not walk or do not have the time to do the hikes. They miss a lot!

Into Antarctica

Why to go to Antarctica? Is it the ticking off a destination on the bucket list, is it about wildlife or landscape or is it a once in a lifetime thing? For myself it is, of course, about photograpy. But I was really interested to see and to understand the difference between the Arctic like Greenland or Svalbard and the Antarctic Continent. Both have glaciers, both have ice shields, the south boasts more wildlife, but no polar bears, but what is really the difference. The geographer in my inner self, really wanted to have some answers to this question, based on my own experience. Sometimes when I am on travel fairs, potential clients are asking this question and now I have some answers.......

Cast Off!

Boarding was smooth and well organized and after the essential safety drill, off we went into the Beagle Channel. As I knew the Sea Spirit already it was just about South Georgian memories not about finding the way through the decks. As she is quite a small vessel it is not difficult anyway to get acquainted with the decks and the open air areas. Another routine is the distribution of antarctic quality rubber boots and a warm jacket in the telltale uniform design so typical for expedition cruises. But the jacket is essential for the harsh antarctic weather......

The Drake - the entrance ticket of the Peninsula

The legendary Drake Passage is an experience and if you like it or not you have to cross this storied stretch of water, where three oceans meet, Pacific - Atlantic - and the Southern or Antarctic Ocean. I am blessed with a good pair of sea legs and I had good fun crossing the Drake. The weather was ok, wind force 8 and 6m waves. Not to bad. Some passengers would have disagreed heavily.....

I kept myself busy trying to shoot the birdlife, which normally is soaring around the ship. But I had hoped for more birds and more species. We had hardly any albatros or one of the smaller tubenoses but at least some giant petrels. Shooting from a shaky deck in strong winds is quite a challenge and "costs" lots of storage...... Some pics are quite nice, but I am still waiting for the perfect shot. In November I will have some more hours and probaby I will need them!

The Arrival - South Shetland Islands

As you see, we saw nothing. The very first hours had been very foggy with wet snow falling, not exactly a dream of a weather for a photographer. But I still liked the experience to "know" now not only the Shetlands in the UK, but also the South Shetlands..... After a while it cleared at least a bit. However the first landings had to be canceled as well. To much swell from the heavy seas on the Drake, but for the rest of the trip most of the landings worked quite well, even if some had been very, very wet!

From now on I will not follow the sequence of the days in Antarctica, but just show pictures of the wildlife and the landscape. The photographic opportunities had been manyfold, the weather however was not on the side of a landscape photographer. You can shoot wildife having fog, rain or snow, it sometimes even adds some special atmosphere. But landscape you need "good" weather especially if you are on the commercial side of photography. Special and unique places like the Lemaire Channel suffered from poor weather...... As usual in my text I add - there must be reasons to come back!

The southern polar circle - did we make it?

Yes we did, there was little ice and this year it was no problem at all. But we had lots of snow, fresh snow. I guess the depth of fresh snow was about 50cm, about the consequences I will tell you later....

One of the more unexpected good experiences was the visit to the now protected and abandoned research stations. I really liked it and you start to understand, what it meant to be stationed there as a scientist during the second half of the last century. By the way it is still not possible to visit working stations due to Covid restrictions. We had been on three sites, one was closed for renovation, Port Lockroy is well known and often visited. It is more a living museum with shop, post office and lots of penguins. Cute, but more impressive was the visit of the Base W on Detaille Island south of the polar circle.

Base W was abondoned in the mid 50ties as access was to difficult. Visits are still difficult as ice is normally blocking the only landing site. We had been lucky as the zodiacs could sneak through the icebergs. Again it was raining and snowing, but this time it was adding atmosphere..... Base W is only tidied up a little bit, but more or less it is a true time capsule. Canned food, clothing, sleeping bags, the workshop, corroding batteries. It is maintained only to the extent, that the building is protected from decay.....

As you see, even the very scientific papers are still in place......

Joking aside, it was very memorable!

Port Lockroy may be much more touristy, but the location is just great. The weather had mercy and it cleared after several days of snow, fog and rain. Nowadys it is surrounded by Gentoos, smelly and noisy but loveable neighbours!


The Antarctic Peninsula and its islands is full of wildlife, seals, penguins, (flying) birds and whales. We saw plenty of wildife from deck, on land and while crusing with the zodiacs. Very surprising was the abundance of whales, especially humpbacks. We saw them daily, sometimes close, sometimes far and sometimes right next to us, at least to the kayakers..... But from the zodiacs we had more than once whales right next to us in a good shooting distance, they did not breach, but where busy fishing.

All about Penguins

Antarctica is penguins and most visitors want to watch them. Access to all colonies is restricted and the rules are getting tougher and tougher. There are good reasons why this is the case and so far it is not difficult for a photographer to comply with the rules while still getting good shots. When I am shooting I even forget, that there are many more people around me!

This season was the first when it was not allowed to sit or kneel in or in the vicinity of colonies. The panic is great that a variant of bird flu is introduced to Antarctica. The boots are desinfected even more thorough than ever, the expedition crew tries hard to reduce all risks. This rule is easy to understand and the workaround is to squat. No real problem, but make sure the backpack is not to heavy, as nothing which is not bathed in desinfectant may not touch the ground, including backpacks...... At least I do not want to be responsible for introducing a bug into Antarctica.

Back to the penguins of Antarctica. We visited colonies of the main antarctic species Gentoos, Adelie and Chinstrap. The more subantarctic species Magellanic, King, Rockhopper and Macaroni did not show up and Emperor breed far away anyway. If we are lucky we will see all mentioned species this November during our long Falkland-South Georgia-Antarctic Peninsula expedition. However the likelyhood to see Emperor in the water is very low, but for the rest of the species, keep the fingers crossed!

The cruise was at the end of the season, it was already late in the summer. As I already mentioned there was little ice and lots of snow, with huge effects on the wildlife. As it seems Antarctica is getting warmer and more wet. Less ice means less krill, the main source of food for all the wildlife, and more snow means trouble for the ground breeding penguins. Only two species do not rely on nests (Emperor and the closely related King). Snow cover for a penguin means no nest. No nest means no eggs and chicks, I think you got the problem!

Following pics are showing Gentoo nests/chicks in two different locations only 3 or 4 days apart.

One chick is close to fletching the other has not even hatched! This year many colonies will have no breeding success at all! Sad! The expedition staff, which is visiting these colonies every year told me, that it is the third year in a row with little or no breeding success. Climate change is truly hitting the Antarctic Peninsula. On the outer islands of the South Shetlands the colonies looked like the colonies on the Falklands at this time of the year, chicks running around and parents coming and going. But only one day of sailing further down south, it was a different story!

Taking pictures on land is always rewarding and I focused on topics I cannot or could not do on the Falklands. I could not choose the species, as this was decided by the landing site, but I tried to include "Antarctica" into my pictures. Snow, ice snowfall, glaciers in the background and so on....

I have plenty pictures of Gentoos, but none of Adelie and only film based stock of Chinstrap. We visited many Gentoo and Chinstrap colonies, once, on the Hydrurga Rocks, Chinstraps gave the Rockhopper......

Some more examples of the life in and around the colonies, always Chinstrap and few Gentoo pics.

We have been a bit unlucky with Adelie. We still saw plenty, but some landings with Adelie had to be aborted due to bad weather and one visit suffered from heavy, all soaking rain. The crop is still fair, but I wished for more, as photographers always do. I hope we will be more lucky next time, but nature will decide! We also did not see Adelies on big icebergs. There are some iconic pictures out there, as Adelie like to rest on icefloes and big bergs. Lets try again in November, where we will cross the area where the bigger icebergs are drifting in the Antarctic Cicumpolar Current. I will try to order a deep blue one!

I am still pleased with some of the results. The best location was a landing spot of a little Adelie colony near Base W. Approach was cruising only and the water was very choppy. Photography of penguins while cruising in a zodiac is very rewarding. It is a very different angle and you have "visual access" to places completely impossible to reach from ashore.

I tried also to get some pictures of purpoising penguins from zodiacs, holding the camera close to the surface of the sea. I got some promising results, but I have to work a little more on the techique. Again something I will try next time. But you need lots of penguins in the water, you need calm sea and you need time in a zodiac. Lots of things which have to come together.

But now some more examples of Adelie, before we move on to other wildlife


One of the most memorable experiences was an encounter with a leopard seal, again while cruising. It was the second day in Antarctica and it again (or still) was foggy with a little snowfall. I was more focused on landscape and I admit I was not happy with the cruise. Crushed ice in fog combined with little icebergs in fog and as a background foggy glaciers, not a photographers dream....

My mood changed when we first spotted a Weddell Seal on an icefloe and while approaching the floe a Leopard Seal spotted us. I guess it was a rather young she or he. It was curios, very curious. The expedition team decided in the beginning to split the group to allow for a better "antarctic solitude" feeling and to allow for better photography. Therefore we had been just two zodiacs close to each other (the rest was out of sight and had a great encounter with a humpback).

The seal followed us for about half an hour, always going from one zodiac to the other and back, basically until we have been called to come back to the Sea Spirit. It dived around and under the zodicas. It was a great experience to watch this elegent creature in the sea. Photography was very demanding. You never knew where it would show up next, close or far away, sometimes to close...... Leopard Seals have a bad habit, they like to nibble on Zodicas. But it was more interested in us than in the rubber of the zodiacs. From time to time the snowfall increased the challenge as a photographer even increased further as it fooled the AF System a bit. But it was memorable and rewarding! Some other guests got real great videos using their smartphones, small systems have their advantages!

We have seen many Leopard Seals, much more than I dared to hope, really good stuff. It always happened while cruising in a zodiac. You always have to be prepared for everything while cruising. It is a bit like driving in a wet, shaking and crammed Safari 4x4, but you cannot stop, everything is done while drifting in the current or wind. All you can do as a photographer is to shoot, do not wait for the best composition, just stay "focused" and press the button. You only have one chance, even if the zodiac makes a second or third approach, it always will be different, in german we say "Wasser hat keine Balken".

There is hardly time to change lenses and often it might be choppy or raining/snowing. Zoom lenses and/or a second body are essential.... Some more Leopard Seal pics....

The Leopard Seals had been the highlight for me regarding seals, but we saw Crabeater, Weddel and Antarctic Fur Seals as well. The next image of a Weddell (the one we spotted before the above mentioned Leopard Seal encounter) is an example, where a little snowfall can add lots of atmosphere....

I am still waiting to watch a seal jumping out of the sea to hang out on an iceberg. I mean, the floes or bergs are slippery things and sometimes they do not have an easy access. It is a miracle....... Have fun with some more seal pictures.

Krill and more

Krill is more or less the source of all life in the antarctic waters. Sometimes I have seen it from a ship as a pink cloud, but never close up. on one of our landing sites quite a bit of krill was washed ashore, very photogenic. The sea birds hardly could fly away after feeding....... Easy food!

But there was of course more wildlife around, some uncommented pictures before we move finally to landscape photography!

The Landscape

Antarctic landscape can be awesome, if the light is right, the clouds are mighty and the ship is in the right position. We have not been blessed at least for the photographer in me. It was still a great experience and sailing through mist and snow amid icebergs with soaring Giant Petrels around is a unique and unforgettable experience! Anyway, stop whining and enjoy the pictures!

Antarctic landscape photography is mostly done from ship or zodiac. Wide angle lenses, so typical for landscape photography, are very often not the best choice. Most landings are tailored for wildlife not for landscape photography. It is possible and sometimes you are lucky, but the restriction of movement is more a problem for landscape than for wildlife photography, at least that's how I see it!

Sometime I used typical wildlife focal length for landscape. It works well, one has just to think a bit different.

If you are lucky, you might have good ice for a foreground and awesome glaciers in the background, then wide angle lenses are great. But as soon as you do not have a good foreground, choose longer lenses....

Have fun with the pictures!

One landing however was for landscape photography only (it was also the shore with the krill, but this was unexpected) - Deception Island. It is a huge caldera with recent vulcanic activity and one of the few places where you find running water in Antarctica!

And suddenly it was over, the last visit to a colony (a really good one on the South Shetlands) and the Drake was again ahead of us. Heavy storm with 10m waves had been predicted by windy, everybody was a bit nervous, but somehow the Sea Spirit managed to sail ahead of the storm, always going full throttle..... As we had been a bit ahead of our schedule we even managed to pass Cape Horn, a little bonus track, before we had to wait for the pilot. The next morning we had to say good bye to the Sea Spirit, for me it was an au revoir.

I'll be back in November!


The final word in german, next workshops

Wir haben das Angebot an Fotoreisen überarbeitet und haben jetzt eine weitere Reise nach Island im Katalog. Nordisland mit Schwerpunkt Hochland. Sehr spannend, keine klassische Rundreise, da wir immer mehrere Tage an einer Stelle bleiben und sicher auch etwas abenteurlich, da das Herbswetter im Hochland schon etwas rauher sein kann, aber nicht muß. Wir sind jetzt auch in den Jahren mit guter Chance auf Nordlicht. Sowohl Nordisland, als auch die Island-Ostgrönland Kombi ist dafür gut geeignet.

Für Falkland 2024 sind noch wenige Plätze frei, wer (sub) antarktische Tiere fotografieren will, ohne auf eine Expeditionskreuzfahrt zu gehen, für den ist Falkland genau das richtige!

Die Kacheln bringen Euch immer zur Beschreibung der Reise! Jetzt gehts für mich ans packen, auf nach finnisch-Lappland. Verschneite Wälder, zugefrorene Seen, Nordlicht, Adler und anderes Getier, scha ma mal!

Unsere Fotoreisen und Foto-Workshops, ein Klick auf die Reise bringt Sie zu einer Beschreibung der Reise

Thats it for the moment! Stay tuned and healthy!

Munich, March 2023