A once in a lifetime experience

witnessed a second time.

Last night’s sleep was terrible. With the wind constantly blowing at 60 knots or even more (that’s roughly 120km/h) the entire station is shaking like an airplane during mild turbulence and a lot of things are rattling and squeaking and you can hear the howling wind through the ventilation system. It’s way too loud in order to get a good night’s sleep, so this morning I woke up even more tired than I was before I went to bed. It’s been stormy for a couple of days now and as far as our forecast says, it will continue to be stormy for at least another four days. It’s days/weeks like this when station life really feels like the movie groundhog day. Every day is more or less the same and there are no great experiences from the colony that could spice life up, since we can’t get outside.

I won’t complain too much though. After all we knew that weeklong storms happen frequently in Antarctica and we’ve been more than lucky with the weather so far. Besides, we had some great experiences at the beginning of the month and I personally had one of the best days ever at the colony.

It all started with our return to the colony after the last storm, which had also lasted a few days. Prior to the storm the penguins had been standing very close to the edge of the shelf in the western part of the bay and with the wind coming from the east, they were pushed even further into that direction. In some spots the area right underneath the shelf is filled with snow which forms ramps – one of which we use in order to descend onto the sea ice on our skidoos. In some other spots however, these ramps have not fully formed yet and after an initial ascent they are followed by a sharp drop of around four to five meters into a gully between the unfinished snow ramp and the shelf ice. We were quite worried that the wind might have pushed penguins into these gullies and when we arrived we could see that it actually was the case. However, it was fascinating to see that the birds were not as helpless as we initially assumed. In fact some of them were so skilled at climbing, that they would have made Spiderman look like a rookie. Using their beaks as an ice axe and the claws on their feet as crampons, we watched birds climb up even incredibly steep snow-walls and easily exiting the gully. An absolutely fascinating piece of behavior and something I had never seen them do before. In some areas we could witness a similar behavior when some of the birds used one of the many ramps which have formed in order to climb onto the shelf ice. Standing in line, one by one they would walk up until they reached a step between the snow ramp and the shelf (which I called the „Hillary Step“ since climbers on Everest see „traffic jams“ at this point as well during high season). Then they would again use their beak and their claws in order to overcome the final obstacle and make their way onto the shelf. For some birds it looked absolutely effortless, but others struggled more. I can’t really say why they would go up there (and a few hours later they had all gone back onto the sea ice again), but it stresses the curious nature of these birds as well as their surprising abilities as climbers.

I guess one aspect that supports this inquisitive behavior of the penguins is that life has become a little easier for them. With both partners taking turns in raising the young and the temperatures increasing again, there’s a bit more energy at their disposal which they can use for „fun activities“. We are also feeling that even on sunny days, the temperatures rarely drop below -32°C anymore, which is a much welcomed break from the -40°C we usually experienced on such days during winter time. With already more then 10 hours of sunshine every day we are approaching polar day again in big steps. In fact, in only two months time the Sun will not set anymore and Atka-Bay will be bathed in eternal sunshine again. I still prefer cloudy days though when the Sun is hidden from the clouds, but its light is diffused in the most beautiful way. Before explaining why I like this scenario best, I need to tell you about one cloudless night that we experienced a few days ago though.

Ever since the Sun dropped below the horizon for the first time and nights have become dark enough to see the stars on a cloudless day we have been chasing the aurora australis. If there is one thing that could be considered the holy grail of Antarctica, I would argue it would be to witness the aurora australis above an emperor penguin colony during a full-moon night. The chances of witnessing this spectacle are so slim that I am having a hard time to believe the lines I am just writing.

When I said that my dream was to photograph the emperors with the aurora above them in 2012, people started laughing at me for my naivety and my lack of realism. I knew I would only be able to get a good shot if there was a full-moon (or almost full at least) at the same time, that would shine enough light onto the colony in order to make them visible with the aurora at the same time. While auroras above Atka-Bay are not uncommon, auroras which are strong enough to outshine the full-moon however are incredibly rare. At the same time they will only last for a few minutes to half an hour which is barely enough time to make it to the sea ice if you are located at station. The only way to „catch“ the intensity maximum of an aurora on the sea ice is to be on the sea ice before it happens. This can mean waiting times of many hours outside in the dark at a time when you usually would be asleep. Back in 2012 I did not care about the unlikeliness of getting the chance to photograph the aurora above the colony on a full-moon night, but whenever there was the slightest chance I gathered as many people as I could and attempted to be there in time. I vividly recall that we failed eight times and by the time we went for attempt number nine, only my good friend Lars Lehnert (who was our communications engineer) and I were left in the group. I know for certain though, that we both will never forget the night of September 30th 2012, when everything fell into place and we witnessed one of the strongest outbursts of aurora we had all year above the emperor penguin colony. In fact, as I am writing this I am getting goose bumps all over my arms – it was one of the most magical things I have ever seen (and photographed) and truly a once in a lifetime experience.

 

One of the strongest auroral displays of 2012 above the emperor penguin colony of Atka Bay during a full-moon night.

 

Almost exactly five years later, on September 6th, 2017 the Sun produced an X-class solar flare which hurled massive amounts of coronal matter (mostly charged particles like protons and electrons and even some He-cores) at over 700 km/s into space – a so-called CME (coronal mass ejection) which was heading for Earth and scheduled to arrive one day later. On September 7th, weather at Neumayer was benign with only a thin layer of cirrus clouds, which was forecasted to vanish during the early evening hours in order to expose crystal clear skies throughout the night. Wind speeds were forecasted at a moderate 15-20 knots with temperatures around -25°C. Certainly not the nicest weather conditions but absolutely bearable. The full-moon had just passed the night before, but with an illuminated disc of around 95% there still was plenty of light at night.

 

Aurora Australis over emperor penguin colony of Atka Bay

 

We arrived at our container on the edge of the shelf ice at around 7pm, just in time to watch the moon rise in the reddest of colors. Compared to 2012 this is as luxurious as it gets when you are waiting for an aurora. With a warmed up container, a kettle and some instant noodles, we were sitting inside, eating and regularly checking the NOAA aurora forecast via the wireless link that we have set up to station. It was hard to believe that the conditions were just right again and that we just had to be down on the ice once the show began. Then, at around 10pm we could see our station webcam (which we could also observe through the wifi-link) picking up a slight auroral band above station, which for us meant that we would also be able to see it above the colony. We quickly got dressed, hopped onto our skidoos and drove down onto the sea ice where we could already see that the band of light had intensified and that the green color of the aurora was already visible to the naked eye. We set up as many timelapses as we could and even pulled out a Sony A7S II in order to attempt to film the spectacle in real time. In parallel, I was taking still images as the aurora slowly intensified. The next almost four hours just flew by. Around one hour after the spectacle had started we witnessed the light show becoming more and more dramatic. The single band of light which usually signals the beginning of an aurora here at Neumayer had multiplied into several bands, which were slowly moving around in a wavy motion and reminded me of cooked spaghetti. It’s hard to describe the dynamics of the aurora with words, but every now and then some of these bands would rupture and light would be „dripping down“ from the broken ends, just like water would drip down from a leaky faucet. Then, lots of light patches appeared in the sky dancing around like moths around a street lamp and activity kept intensifying. At some point, the aurora became so bright that even the snow on the ground was bathed in green light. At this point it was hard to pick a composition or focus on one portion of the sky since it was looking amazing all around us. The show continued for at least half an hour until activity slowly decreased again. However, it did not completely stop so we stayed outside until 2am in the morning before we decided to take another break at the container. An hour later we got back out again in order to see whether the display would reignite, but at that point activity had almost fully subsided and the once well-defined green bands had been smeared across the entire sky and were barely visible anymore – even with our cameras. Still amazed by what we had witnessed a few hours ago we decided to call it a day, left some time-lapses outside and went back to station in order to catch some sleep.

 

During intense displays of the aurora, the entire sky can be filled with bands and patches of light.

 

Back at station however, I could not sleep for at least another hour, since I was trying to understand what I had just witnessed. In 2012 I said that seeing the aurora above the colony was a once in a lifetime experience. In 2017, I can say that if you are really lucky, you might even experience a once in a lifetime thing for a second time :-).

Two days later clouds moved in and we have not seen the Sun or the stars ever since. At the beginning of this blog I wrote that I actually like overcast days when clouds act like giant diffusers for the harsh light of the Sun, which really brings out the elegant colors of the emperors. Before the current storm hit us we had two absolutely beautiful overcast days at the colony with that very soft and uniform light as well as cozy temperatures around -15°C and no wind. In fact these days felt so warm, that I was partially able to work without gloves and could also reduce the amount of clothing I was wearing. With the new found freedom it was easier to move around, easier to breathe and also easier to work the small buttons of the camera. In general things work so much better at temperatures above -20°C. The LCD-based, AF-point indicators of the D810 get very sluggish at cold temperatures and quickly come to a point where you just can’t tell anymore which field is currently selected. Instead, all of them or non of them will be lit at the same time. On these cold days (which was pretty much every day since May) the only thing you can do is to use live view AF (which is slow and uses up a lot of battery in the cold) or the center AF point (which is critical if you focus and recompose at wide-open apertures). To make a long story short – in winter conditions you simply can’t use gear like you would like to and workarounds are the only thing that can keep you shooting. These workarounds are usually quite unhandy though and will impact productivity and image quality and therefore reduce your number of good shots considerably.

 

The diffuse light of overcast days and the lack of contrast render much of the surroundings of the colony as pure white, which makes for a canvas-like background

 

Another nice aspect of warmer days is that there is so much more activity in the colony, since the penguins do not have to huddle in order to stay warm, but their feathers and fat insulation are sufficient to make them feel comfortable. Ever since we saw first chicks hatch at the beginning of August they have grown incredibly fast and are almost at the point where they will not fit into the brood pouch of their parents anymore. However, this will not hinder them from trying to get in there anyway. Some of them just try to dive right back into the pouch once they have left it with their head first and their feet still on the snow. The parents usually try to help them to get back on their feet but sometimes they will just watch and see what their offspring can accomplish on their own. It’s very entertaining to watch :-).

 

Adult emperor penguin and its chick making eye contact and interacting.

 

In general the chicks are at a very cute age and every thing they do looks adorable. Sometimes they will be lying on their parents feet sideways with their head on one side looking around seemingly half asleep. At other times, two parents (not couples) will stand together, each with a chick on their feet watching them interact (almost like a play date). However if one of the chicks is tired and turns around just to show its butt to the other chick I have frequently observed that a peck in the butt is a common reaction of the other chick. At this point it is guaranteed that whenever you watch the same chick for more than five minutes, there will be plenty of moments to make you chuckle.

 

Portrait of an emperor penguin chick. They are currently at a very cute age.

 

On the last day before the storm hit us I was spending some time with a pair of birds and their chicks just watching them interact and trying to photograph them. I mentioned initially that it was one of the best days I ever had at the colony and aside from the benign weather, the warm temperatures and the fact that I could pull my balaclava down and breathe freely, also photographically things were working out perfectly. I am usually quite happy if I can get two or three really nice photos per day and I am really critical when it comes to correct focus and distracting elements in my compositions. The two chicks and their parents were stunning to watch, since they were absolutely clean (at this time of the year the birds are usually quite dirty from standing in their own feces or from feeding spills which stick in their feathers) and standing on an absolutely untouched patch of beautiful white snow.

 

Two emperor penguins and their chicks standing close interacting with each other

 

For this time of the year when the chicks are just on the verge of not fitting into the brood pouch anymore I had a few compositions and image ideas in my head that I wanted to realize and I knew that it would take me a while to collect all of the shots. Well, on that very day, with the described pair of adults and chicks I was able to realize ALMOST ALL of the shots I had on my mind. Focus was spot on most of the time and whenever I was wishing for the penguins to make a certain movement, a few seconds later it would actually happen. With the camera and the tripod working flawlessly in the warm weather, there was no frustration about missed shots but sheer joy of nailing every composition I anticipated. At ISO 1600, f/11 and shutter speeds of 1/1000 of a second, I could ensure that everything from front to back would be in focus aside from the pure white background which looked like canvas due to the overcast weather and low contrast. No trade-offs like depth of field vs. shutter speed or exposure vs. noise, just the sheer joy of composing and getting the shot. Coming back to station and looking at the shots I had taken at least 15 images, which I really liked and all of them were shot in my preferred style (lots of negative space or interesting framing). Can’t wait to show you some of them really soon :-).

 

The chicks have grown considerably and gained a lot of weight, which is easily visible when they are sitting in the small brood pouch.

 

At this time of the year the chicks are extremely observant and watch everything which is going on around them in the colony as long as they are not asleep.

 

Watching a chick and a parent interact is a privilege and offers the chance to take very emotional photographs.

 

With around 50 days left on this shoot I really hope that the storm will pass soon and that we will be able to spend a lot more time on the sea ice and capture more magical moments in the colony. That being said, I would be lying if I said I was not excited about going home. As much as I love this place and the colony, I really miss my wife, my parents, my friends and my home. It’s quite hard to comprehend that we have been here for more than nine months already and exiting the plane in Stuttgart at the beginning of November will certainly make all of this feel like a dream. To me Antarctica remains a place which I cannot fully understand – maybe that is part of the magic.