By Bartosz Stróżyński
I live in Poland where the very cold lakes and Baltic Sea waters are the standard environment for local divers. Despite that, or maybe because of that, I have always dreamed about diving in really extreme waters like those of Antarctica. Because I am passionate about underwater photography, my target was very clear, go there and make pictures of the unique flora and fauna of the region.
This type of trip, however, has a high barrier of entry. For starters, a lot of cash is needed to begin even thinking about going on an Antarctic dive trip. Then you need to factor in the other aspects of diving there, like your experience level and training, whether you have the proper diving and photography equipment, and even if you have the time to spend 4 weeks away from everything.
Most of the boat expeditions to Antarctica start in Ushuaia, Argentina, a place called “The End Of The Word.” I guess despite that fact that it was developed as commercial destination to attract tourists, it still looks like end of the world. From most places, it takes 3 connections and long hours in planes and airports to reach Ushuaia. This only makes the issues underwater photographers have with flying, like dreaded excess baggage fees, that much more stressful.
To get to Antarctica from Ushuaia, you need to cross the Drake Passage, which is probably the most difficult and dangerous ocean sailing area in the world. When the water is rough, depending on how seasick you get, crossing it may mean two or three days in bed feeling like death.
The reason to make this treacherous journey, however, is because Antarctica, from marine life point of view, is an interesting place to dive, with abundant subjects to photograph.
There are three very unique targets that most underwater photographers try to capture in Antarctica. The first one is icebergs, which are very old, beautiful, blue shining formations that create amazing ice shapes over and under water. Although they make excellent subjects for over-under photography, these are difficult shots to make. Extreme light variations under and over water, reflections, misleading whiteness everywhere, low contrast surrounding the subject and plenty of particulate matter in the water are all obstacles you will need to overcome when trying to make a split shot of an iceberg.
The second subject of interest is the penguin, which moves fast underwater and is difficult to catch with a still camera. Getting a shot of them requires patience, but when you are successful, the results are rewarding.
The third, and probably the most spectacular Antarctic subject is the Leopard Seal. Antarctica is the only place in the world where this mammal can be met. It is called a leopard seal due its characteristic spots on skin, but after spending some time with the animal, I found it to be more similar to a dog than to a leopard.
There are numerous leopard seals around Antarctica seaside areas, and you may often see them sleeping on small icebergs. They seem to be very lazy and uninterested in jumping into the water to help us in our photographic endeavors. With a bit of luck though, you can meet the leopard seal while diving and play with it, making spectacular pictures.
There are other species of seals in Antarctica, none as spectacular as the leopard seal, but still interesting subjects for mammal photography. While there are very limited fish photography opportunities, you can still take very interesting macro photographs of colorful jellyfish, beautiful soft corals, different sea stars and other invertebrates. In fact, Antarctica is the kingdom of krill, which attracts big mammals to come and feed. I had no chance to dive with them, but they are present it’s possible successfully target them.
There are obviously some dive gear considerations to help assist with the harsh environment. The main difference from a standard diving configuration is that you use two independent regulators system on two independent first stages. I don’t see the value of such a solution on single tank, but anyway, this is the common practice.
In very cold waters, which at times can be below zero, my lowest was minus 1.9 degrees Celsius, there is the risk of regulators being frozen. I must admit nothing like this happened during my trip, probably because air was very dry there (Antarctica is drier region than Sahara in Africa.)
Obviously another consideration is the type of suit to wear. Considering the cold water, only dry suits are acceptable. People diving in Antarctica should be experienced in dry suit diving; it is not good place to learn it. Some divers use electrical heating systems under their dry suits, but this is a very personal choice, and in my opinion, they add expensive extra luggage, heavy batteries, and very limited difference in diving comfort. No matter what suit you use, your head and hands will always be exposed to the cold water. I highly recommend a good 7mm to protect your head, as this kept me very warm. Protecting your hands is more of a debate between whether wet or dry gloves are better. I prefer wet, but again, it is very individual thing.
Standard dives in Antarctica are between 30 and 45 minutes long, but I experienced ones longer than one hour with no real issues.
There are no real special photographic equipment requirements in regards to the cold water, and it seems as if most housings don’t have any issues at all. I used the Canon 1D Mark II with 14mm Canon lens, with a Seacam housing and two Subtronic Mega Strobes and had no problems. Considering how much effort it takes to get to Antarctica, and how many unique opportunities there are, it makes sense to bring your whole photo equipment arsenal, and this includes strobes.
Obviously, for macro there is no choice but to use strobes -- no extra light means no pictures. In iceberg and leopard seal images, extra light is not always necessary, and sometimes can even be destructive due to the high risk of backscatter.
Personally, I thought some of my images without any artificial light compensation, were missing something, so I often used strobes, but it is more difficult and risky in terms of backscatter.
Diving in Antarctica is not for all of us. It is for people who really like strenuous diving and it takes a lot of self-discipline and pushing of your own limits. It requires advanced diving skills and underwater photography experience before you leave, as it is not a place to learn.
Diving Antarctica was always my dream, and when I reached this destination, I knew immediately it was definitely not my last visit there. One year later, I am actually going there again, and I have already started thinking about next one. Most expeditions take place in the Antarctic summer, and so my next dream is to come to Antarctica in the wintertime. What this means concerning photography, I have no clue yet, but I sure would love to find out. For now, please enjoy the slideshow of images I put togethor from last trip.