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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Here Be Dragons

Documenting the wild world in expeditions that go to the ends of the earth

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This Article Features Photo Zoom

King penguins at sunrise, St. Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Antarctica.

It’s 2 a.m. at 80º north of the equator. The midnight sun glares off puddles in the pack ice. Here, in the high Arctic, summer is one long day, and the sun won’t set for another five weeks. Through my binoculars I can see three creamy dots walking on the ice, making occasional leaps between floes. The size difference and behavior suggest a mother and two cubs. Jackpot!

Leopard seal on ice floe, Gerlache Strait, Antarctica.
Like a giant blue iceberg, the National Geographic Explorer pushes slowly through the ice as the bears move closer. I take a series of deep breaths and steady my Canon DSLR and long telephoto mounted on a monopod along the rail of the ship, which keeps me mobile. Observing polar bears in the wild is thrilling, and with so much adrenaline pumping it’s easy to get overly excited and make mistakes. I double-check my settings: auto-focus engaged, image stabilization on, aperture priority at ƒ/8, ISO 400 and exposure compensation at +1.7 EV to keep from underexposing the white ice and creamy bears. It’s time to observe, be patient, and wait for the moment.

As the animals come into range, the mother bear tests the ice edge by pushing down with her paws, a clue that she may make a jump across the open water. I prefocus at the ice edge. Seconds later, she makes a sudden leap. Ready for action, I blast away in continuous burst mode, hoping to capture the entire sequence from takeoff to landing. The cubs follow. I continue shooting with the long 500mm lens, making tight portraits, but soon they’re too close and I switch to my second camera body with the 70-200mm medium telephoto. Not knowing what to make of the ship and the paparazzi peering over the rail, mother bear turns and leads her cubs away, quickly disappearing among the ice hummocks. Catching my breath, I wonder, Did that really happen? It did; I have the images to prove it.

Many wild places in the world are best visited by making oceangoing expeditions on small passenger ships. Among the best places to be explored by ship are in the polar regions. Circling the top of the globe, polar bears are best observed by ship in Norway’s high Arctic Svalbard archipelago, stretching to within 600 miles of the North Pole. At the bottom of the world, expedition ships sail beyond South America’s famed Cape Horn, taking travelers to visit the thousands of penguins living on the remote island of South Georgia and the white Antarctic.

Young male Atlantic walrus, Cape Lee, Edge Island, Southeast Svalbard Nature Preserve, Svalbard, Norway.
The Right Ship
There’s a wonderful sense of freedom sailing on the high seas onboard a small expedition ship. The prospect of finding wild animals in their natural environment, the adrenaline rush of the first sighting and the challenge of getting the shot make every trip an epic voyage. No two expeditions are ever the same.

Small expedition ships not only are a great way to travel, but they also make a great platform for photography. In relative comfort, you can venture to the ends of the earth in search of wildlife and wild places. Photography takes on a new level of enjoyment as you shoot amazing scenery and, sometimes, surprisingly close wildlife encounters right from the deck of the ship. Choosing an expedition that has an emphasis on photography will help improve your chances of being in the right place at the right time.


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