Life is a rollercoaster

The ups and downs of wildlife filmmaking

It’s white. Everywhere – the ground, the sky, just everything. It’s been blowing snow for almost five days straight now and talking to our meteorologist, things do not seem like they are going to improve in the coming three days. A feeling of helplessness takes a hold of me and the fear, that we might miss out on a crucial bit of behavior for the first time. I tend to get nervous in such cases when maybe I should just be laid back and cool about it. But let me begin from the start.

A few weeks ago the emperors started coming back and we were more than excited to see them pouring in the perfect spot for us: very close to where we have set up our container. So far so good, but we could only film them from the top of the shelf ice, since there were no ramps that granted us access to the sea ice yet. About a week later we had a severe storm, that brought incredible amounts of snow and flattened the rugged sea ice over night. It also created a semi-ramp in some spots along the shelf – good enough, that we felt confident we could rope a person down onto the ice to finally be able to get to eye level with the birds. After we had spent a good amount of time exploring the edge of the shelf we finally found a very good spot suitable for our endeavor. Prior, at station we had rehearsed all the important knots and mountaineering techniques we learned in our mountain course and could now put them to good use.

Playing it absolutely safe, we secured each anchor point with two ice screws instead of one and had one person stay up on the shelf at all times. Once we had lowered Lindsay down onto the sea ice he started measuring the thickness of the snow, which was almost two meters in some areas. Since we were planning to stay close to the edge of the ice, we also measured the ice thickness around our spot and found an incredible 40 cm of ice – easily enough to drive a skidoo onto, so we knew that this was a safe spot to operate from. In order to have easier access in the future, we installed a ladder at that very point, securing it with additional ice-screws and band-slings – almost everest-like. 🙂

Our ladder installed at the edge of the shelf ice in order to descend onto the newly formed sea ice.

We put our new sea-ice access to good use the following days getting some great footage of traveling birds and we felt really good about having mastered such an important part of our shoot so effectively. Having early sea-ice access means, that we would not miss out on crucial behavior like courtship and mating, since these things happen very early in the season when usually, we would not be able to be on eye-level with the birds just yet. In order to film the courtship and mating we would have to move closer to the colony, since most of the birds have gathered in a spot roughly two kilometers away from our access point. Venturing further out on the ice needs some preparation as well as continuous sea ice thickness measurements. Consequently we got everything ready, the drills, the measuring stick, the pulks to carry around equipment on the ice by foot – then the weather struck.

Drilling a hole into the ice is a funny feeling. Feels like you are trying to sink the boat that carries you (we know that’s not possible ;)).

Now we have been trapped inside for days and all you ever see is white when you look out of the windows. There are incredibly rewarding moments when you film and photograph wildlife and nature and on some days everything just seems to fall into place and you get amazing material or never seen before behavior. But then there are also days when just nothing seems to work out and you start running out of time. The worst feeling is, that the vision of something that you had in your head so clearly, starts to slip away and become unrealistic, which is a huge disappointment.

Now, here’s where I get back to the things I wrote in the beginning. It’s the end of April now and the courtship and mating of the emperor penguins is happening as I write these lines. However, due to the bad weather, we still cannot get to the colony. It’s hard to predict if the bad weather will affect the birds as well in a way that they will have to postpone their courtship and mating rituals, but many people say that at the beginning of May, most of it will be over and the emperor females will lay their egg. While I am very optimistic, that we will be able to get closer to the colony for the egg laying and also the egg transfer from the females to the males, I am beginning to get nervous about missing out on courtship and mating. May is only a few days away and the weather does not seem to be acting out in our favor.

Now, I mentioned in beginning that maybe I should be more laid back about this. We have done everything we can in order to maximize our filming time (even worked our way onto the sea ice) and at the moment we are well prepared to start filming immediately if a good weather window opened. So, the fact that we are running out of time has nothing to do with what we are doing or how well we are prepared. It simply boils down to luck. Sometimes it is quite hard to accept, that wildlife filmmaking has to rely on luck to a certain extent, but it is a reality. We are all giving a year of our lives for this project and we are more than dedicated to make this a beautiful and stunning film. It would be a shame to miss this behavior especially since we will not get a second chance to film it. So, for the next week I will continue to be nervous and hope for the best. Who knows, once we finally get to the birds, maybe all the worrying was in vain and we will be able to witness everything we dreamed of. I like that thought …

UPDATE:

Shortly after I had written this post, things started to turn in our favor. And to be honest, this turn of events is also the reason, why this blog post is so late (since I was outside most of the time during the last week).

The weather has been good for way over a week now and Antarctica is finally showing it’s smiling face to us. On the first few good days we were able to get down onto the sea ice and walk towards the colony, pulling our gear in pulks. At -30°C with a wind blowing just above 15 knots, this was far from a nice experience though, because once we had reached the colony, we were drenched in our own sweat. Since we did not move around too much after getting there, our wet clothing made the low temperatures almost unbearable. I am not exaggerating when I say, that every muscle in my body was sore the next day from shivering and holding that tense body pose that you have when you are really, really cold. However, we used the opportunity and measured ice thicknesses on our way to the colony to get a better idea of how safe it would be to operate a skidoo on the ice. Nowhere were we falling below 45cm that day – just to give you an idea of how much weight ice like this can carry: in Canada, big semi trucks drive over ice that is around 35cm thick :).

Will and Tim doing sea ice measurements while Lindsay and I followed them with the camera gear.

Due to all the snow and the bad weather in the preceding week, a ramp from the shelf onto the sea ice had finally formed and after knowing that we could safely get a skidoo down onto the ice, we spent a good couple of hours exploring the ramp making sure there were no snow bridges underneath or any cracks, that were covered up. Then, finally we took our first skidoo down onto the sea ice and all of a sudden the colony became so much more accessible as we could carry much more gear over there and arrive dry and warm.

Lindsay driving down a beautiful snow ramp. It’s a lot safer than the one we had in 2012 :).

So, for the past days we have been filming the emperors for every minute of light we had and got some really great footage. And the best part is: we were able to witness courtship and mating and all my worries have completely disappeared. I cannot tell you how great my relief was, when I realized, that still a few birds were mating and displaying and that we would be able to capture everything that we had worked so hard for. As I said in the beginning – wildlife filmmaking can be full of ups and downs. I am so glad we have reached the ups again. With the ramp now in place and the colony accessible we will be able to witness every further step in the lives of the emperor penguins if weather permits.

It’s a great feeling to be back on the sea ice finally.

Now, we have around five days of sunlight left as the days are getting shorter and shorter. After that, polar night will begin and the Sun will not rise for around eight weeks. It will not be completely dark however, but we will have a few hours during the day when the Sun „almost“ rises and will create civil twilight, that will give us enough light to film with more specialized cameras. That will be part of a separate blog post though, so stay tuned :).

I can’t wait to witness civil twilight close to the new ice bergs that are stuck in our bay. It will look absolutely stunning.