Helicoptering to Snow Hill Island

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Image: A view of Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Weddell Sea from a helicopter, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

When we woke up on Day 5, I went up to the bridge to capture a shot of where we were on the computer map.  The ship had made it to a mere 6 miles from the colony!

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Image: A computer map of our location in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

All of the passengers were divided up into 6 groups and I was one of the earlier groups to head out to the island that day.  Since we were so close to the island, the ride was only 5-10 minutes, depending on which helicopter I rode in.  

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Image: The Russian helicopter that transported passengers to Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

As we took off, I attempted to capture various shots of the scenery and ship in the surrounding sea ice.  It was quite a sight. I was too nervous to use my DSLR camera since this was my first helicopter ride and I wasn’t sure how steady it would be, so I used my iPhone to capture all of the images in this blog post.

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Image: A view of Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Weddell Sea from a helicopter, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

We flew over miles of sea ice in the Weddell Sea and I saw large icebergs protruding from the flat ice.  Occasionally I saw a large solitary seal, but I was unable to identify the species.   As we got closer to the iceberg shown below, I realized that we were close to our landing location marked by a flag.

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Image: An iceberg surrounded by sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held from a helicopter.

Upon landing on the sea ice, we were directed to the bright yellow tent for further instructions.  The tent was about a mile away from the Emperor penguin colony and served several purposes.  It was a refuge against the cold temperatures but also contained food and water since no food was allowed at the colony to preserve the wilderness.  

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Image: The base tent on sea ice near Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held from a helicopter.

After walking carefully to the tent, I turned around to see the helicopter take off to fly back to the ship to pick up the next round of passengers.  With two helicopters flying at the same time, all passengers made it to the island in about 2 hours (by 8:30am).  

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Image: Our helicopter taking off from sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

I was fascinated by the helicopters landing on the sea ice next to Snow Hill Island and took a short video of that scene.

After learning that we were allowed to stay 9.5 hours at the colony with the penguins, I began the trek across the sea ice following the flags and footsteps of those before me.  The Emperor penguins were awaiting…

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Image: The makeshift path to the Emperor penguin colony on sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

Our first Emperor penguin!

Image: An old Russian helicopter returns from a reconnaissance mission in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 62 mm, f/16, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker made its way through the thick sea ice in the Weddell Sea on Day 4, we stopped at various points for reconnaissance missions with the helicopters onboard.  Our captain knew that we were close to Snow Hill Island, but he sent one of the helicopters up into the sky to determine our distance from the Emperor penguin colony living on the sea ice near the island.  At one point we were 20 miles away, a distance too far for transporting all the passengers by helicopter to the island the next day.  The ship began moving through the ice again, but the passage became more and more difficult.  A second mission was deployed to examine the sea ice surrounding Snow Hill Island to find an easier path through the thick ice.  

Image: An old Russian helicopter prepares for takeoff in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

While we were waiting for the helicopter to return from this second mission, I spotted my first Emperor penguin!!!!  I was so excited and although it was far away, I was able to capture a shot of it swimming in an opening in the sea ice with my telephoto lens.

Image: Emperor penguin swimming in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

It soon disappeared under the sea ice and I resumed waiting for the helicopter to return.  A few more passengers joined the few of us on deck, and the wait was worth it!  About 15 minutes later, a raft of Emperor penguins appeared from under the sea ice and began swimming across the opening. 

Image: A raft of Emperor penguin swimming in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 260 mm, f/8.0, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I zoomed in on a select few with my lens and caught them surfacing and leaping out of the water!  They submerged again, continuing their journey for food under the thick sea ice.  Every 10-15 minutes, we were rewarded with 1 – 3 penguins swimming in the water but we never saw that large of a group again in the sea.

Image: Emperor penguins swimming and leaping in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When the reconnaissance helicopter returned with a tentative route for the icebreaker, the captain started up the engines to begin breaking our way closer to the colony.  The crew spent the rest of the day preparing us for the following day–our first day on Snow Hill Island!  

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.

Breaking through Antarctic Sea Ice

Image: A fracture line in thin sea ice created by Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in the Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 32 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

After passing through the Antarctic Sound, the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker entered the notorious Weddell Sea.  I had just read all about this area of Antarctica prior to this expedition after a good friend gave me the book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing.  I was a bit wary of going through thick sea ice after reading this amazing story, but I was assured by the power of this icebreaker after I saw how it could move through ice.  In the video below, I am standing at the front of the bow as the ship approaches the sheet of drift ice and then eventually slows down as it crushes the ice and makes an opening.

I also spent time with my camera at the bow capturing images of the splitting ice as the ship made its way through solid sheets of ice.  It is hard to tell the scale of the ice from these images, but the ice was 1-2 m (3.2-6.5 ft) thick above the surface of the water. 

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker creating a path in ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I went up to the bridge above deck 8 at one point in the early morning to get an overview of what was happening below on the ice.  It was a nice perspective to see how fracture lines were created when the sea ice was broken up by the weight of the ship.  

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker creating fracture line in sea ice in Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 32 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

I also took some images of the stern to get an idea of what our path looked like as we paved our way through the sea ice.

Image: The path of Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in sea ice in Weddell Sea. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/320 sec, ISO 320, hand-held.

As we progressed into Weddell Sea and got closer to Snow Hill Island, the ice became thicker and the world of white grew around us.  The light on the surrounding landscapes was blinding but created a winter wonderland. 

Image: Icebergs protruding from sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8, 1/1600 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

I continually walked around the ship to capture various scenes.  In the image below, you can see that the sea ice had thickened and the pathway we took was more defined behind us since we were navigating through larger and thicker sheets of ice.  In the distance, there were some gigantic tabular icebergs that dwarfed our ship.

Image: The path in sea ice created by the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

In many of the images, there were brown spots that showed up in the ice that had been agitated.  I learned that the brown was a type of algae that grew on the undersurface of the sea ice and provided a source of food for a variety of sea life.   

Image: Blue iceberg protruding from sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 31 mm, f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When we were about 20 miles away from Snow Hill Island, we came across an area with very thick sea ice and the scene shown in the video below.  Initially the ship moved forward in the ice as I videotaped the stern, but at about halfway through the video, the forward progress of the ship stopped and small pieces of ice sheet started breaking up behind the ship.

I learned that this ship could navigate at 20 knots at full speed in open water with 6 engines, but in soft first-year ice up to 1.5 m thick, it slowed down to 1 knot.  When the ice got thicker (up to 3 m thick), the ship’s strategy had to change to repeated ramming.  Since we were not making forward progress at this point, we got to experience the ship repeatedly ramming the ice for a couple hours.

Image: Sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 35 mm, f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Slowly, the ship began to break away the surrounding ice.  Since the ship had a flat bottom, it went on top of the sea ice and the weight of the ship eventually crushed the ice and we lowered back down into the water.  We backed up and repeated the process until a fracture line developed.

Image: Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker crushing ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

The scene behind the ship became even more beautiful as the light changed and we could see more of the blue water that was churning.

Image: Blue sea waters stirred up behind the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 24 mm, f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

We eventually broke through this thick ice sheet and progressed closer to Snow Hill Island.  The captain skillfully managed to navigate us to an area in the middle of thick sea ice that was 6 miles from the southern side of Snow Hill Island and the Emperor penguin colony!!!  We had hope that we would soon see the penguins..  

You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.  For those interested in more of the icebreaking process, I included one more 5 minute video of the icebreaker creating fracture lines and moving through ice into open water.  

If you are interested in one of my 2019 calendars that contains an image of sea ice in addition to penguins, puffins and more, please contact me at amy_novotny@yahoo.com by November 20, 2018.  See my past post here for more details and examples of images I am using in the calendar.

Antarctic Sea Ice

Image: Antarctic and sea ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 66 mm, f/16, 1/320 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

On day 4 of our trip across the Southern Ocean with Cheeseman’s Ecological Safaris and Quark Expeditions, we awoke to a calmness.  I could hardly believe it was possible to have a reprieve from the constant rocking back and forth.  I peeked out the window and saw a scene like the one above.  I was excited beyond belief!  I learned that we were going to be traveling through the Antarctic Sound for the next several hours.  I rushed outside with my camera (and promptly went back in to layer up more) and began taking photos of the gorgeous scenes around the ship.  

Image: Antarctica and sea ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 38 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

One of the expedition staff onboard the ship, a glaciologist named Colin Souness, educated us on sea ice during one of the daily presentations.  I had never really thought about sea ice prior to this expedition, but I have since learned about its importance not only in the local Antarctic environment but also in the global one.

Image: Antarctic sea ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 35 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

In order for sea ice to develop, ocean water must be below the freezing point of fresh water (0 degrees Celsius/32 degrees Fahrenheit) due to the salinity of the water that lowers the freezing point to -1.8 degrees Celsius/28.8 degrees Fahrenheit.  Typically the top 100-150 m (300-450 ft) of ocean water must be at this freezing point before ice crystals begin to form.  This form of ice is called frazil ice.  In the image below, the top portion demonstrates this beginning stage.  

Image: Antarctic frazil ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 70mm, f/16, 1/250 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

In calm cold waters, the frazil ice crystals join together to form grease ice, aptly named due to the slick appearance of the thin layers of ice.  As we were moving through the Antarctic Sound, I was able to capture a few images of the grease ice although it was less prevalent than other forms of ice due to it being the beginning of spring.  

Image: Antarctic grease ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 60 mm, f/16, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

In rough ocean waters, the frazil ice crystals bump into each other and turn into a slushy round forms of ice called pancake ice.  One of the identifying features of this ice is the raised perimeter of these circular ice forms.  

Image: Antarctic slush and pancake ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 28 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As pancake or grease ice grows and accumulates in cold winter temperatures, it begins to form sheets of ice that thicken over time.  If the ice is attached to the shoreline, it is called fast ice since it is fastened to land.  We were able to see a lot of fast ice around Snow Hill, Seymour and James Ross Islands.

Image: Antarctic fast ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 31 mm, f/16, 1/200 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When the ice sheets remain mobile and move with the ocean currents, they are considered drift ice.  As we were approaching the islands in the ship, there was a lot of evidence of this type of ice before we reached the fast ice.

Image: Antarctic drift ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 31 mm, f/16, 1/400 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

When sheets of drift ice are large enough, (greater than 20 m or 65.6 ft across), they are known as floes.  As the floes move over the ocean surface and ram into each other due to currents, they create pressure ridges such as the one shown below.

Image: Antarctic pressure ridge in drift ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 40mm, f/16, 1/800 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

As I took photos of this stunning landscape, I had hoped to capture each form of ice described above.  I was happy I succeeded at this from an artistic and aesthetic point of view, but having these visuals further helped me understand the importance of sea ice for the global climate.  The white ice was very reflective of sunlight (as I learned the first day when I went without sunglasses) which in turn helps direct solar energy back into space.  This allows the polar climates to stay colder than the rest of earth.  When sea ice melts in an area or over a larger region, the dark ocean waters absorb that solar energy, causing temperatures to rise in the surrounding area.  More sea ice begins to melt and a cycle of heating and melting begins.  The arrival of winter can put a temporary pause in this cycle, but if overall temperatures remain higher, the polar environment will change drastically.  

Image: Antarctic frazil and grease ice. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Sea ice and this process has important implications on the movement of ocean waters and in the maintenance of a proper balance in the temperature across earth.  When sea ice forms, most of the salt in the ocean water gets pushed below the ice.  This causes the salinity of the water below the ice to increase and thus the density of the water increases.  When this happens, the denser, heavier, cooler water drops to the bottom of the ocean and moves towards the equator as hotter lighter water from the equator moves along the ocean surface towards the poles.  This helps disperse heat from the equator to help maintain the temperature balance of earth.  If there is less sea ice on the poles, the ability of earth to moderate heat lessens, thereby affecting the whole world.  It was fascinating to learn that sea ice can have such an important effect on all of us,  no matter where we are in this world.  

Image: Antarctic sea ice. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-70 mm at 62 mm, f/16, 1/320 sec, ISO 400, hand-held.

Some of the information presented above came from Colin Souness’s presentation, but I wanted to learn more and read the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s website, located Here.  

You can view these images individually in my portfolio located here.  Stay tuned for more from this adventure as I continue wading through the images and wrapping my mind around what I saw and experienced.  

If you are interested in one of my 2019 calendars that contains an image of sea ice in addition to penguins, puffins and more, please contact me at amy_novotny@yahoo.com by November 20, 2018.  See my past post here for more details and examples of images I am using in the calendar.

2019 Calendars

Calendar sample

Over the past couple years, I have put together a calendar of my landscape and wildlife images from my adventures over the year.  This year is no different and here is a sampling of 6 photos for my 2019 calendar.  Images will come from faraway places including England, Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica!

Before I place an order for the calendars, I would like to get an idea of who wants to purchase one (or more). They will be the standard 8.5 x 11 size and I’m charging $20 to cover costs. They can be picked up locally in the Phoenix, Arizona area (specifically Chandler and Gilbert).  If you would like it shipped, the additional cost will be $6.70 through USPS priority mail to cover shipping. Please let me know if you are interested and would like me to order you one (or more).  You can contact me through my website, http://www.amysimpressions.com or email me at amy_novotny@yahoo.com. Deadline for notification is November 20, 2018.

I am still working on processing thousands of images from Antarctica and will resume posts from that adventure soon!

The Drake Crossing

Ship 7391 October 19, 2018

Image: The bow of Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Drake Passage. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

As promised by our expedition leader, we entered the Drake Passage around midnight of October 20, 2018.  I awoke to rocking and rolling around 11:50pm, and although the motion wasn’t horrible, it shifted me around in bed quite a bit and I was sick  Later that morning it was not much better as the constant tilt of the ship from side-to-side did not let up for a second.  For hours and hours, the boat rocked as it went over the rough seas of the Drake Passage.  I went up to the bridge at one point in attempt to watch the horizon to calm my spinning head.  The rocking back and forth was greater higher up in the ship but the ability to see the horizon helped.  The adventurous side in me enjoyed seeing the ship crash down into the water and waves come up over the bow.

Ship 8349 October 2018

Image: The bow of Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Drake Passage. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

I learned much about the design of the icebreaker from the expedition staff as they tried to justify the excessive motion of the ship.  The ship did not have a keel or stabilizers to steady the ship in the open ocean since it was designed to have a flat bottom to be able to rise up onto sea ice several meters thick and crush it.  It was extremely effective for ice and served a very necessary purpose to get us to Snow Hill Island, but it was one of the worst type of ship for the Drake Passage.  Even very seasoned staff and passengers said this was one of their worst trips and many who did not get seasick were taking medication.  That made me feel slightly justified as I eventually resorted to getting a new medication from the ship’s physician that promptly put me to sleep.  Below is an image I took during one of the instances of the ship’s sideways tilt when I kept my phone level with the ship so that I could see how much the we angled with the horizon.

Ship 8331 October 2018

Image: The bow of Kapitan Khlebnikov in the Drake Passage. iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held.

The second night was the worst.  I fell twice, once in the middle of the night and once the next morning trying to get out of my top bunk.  Both times the ladder came crashing down on me, but I survived with nothing more than a couple bruises and sore body parts.  More alarming was what happened to my cabin mate in the middle of that day when we were in a “holding” pattern in the middle of the Drake Passage for 25 hours.  We were both in the lounge area when she sat down on a chair in front of the water station.  I sat in another chair next to a table for support as the ship rocked greatly from side to side (similar to my image above).  The ship lurched even more to the side and flung her and the chair 10 feet across the room before my very eyes.  I screamed out for her as I saw her go sideways and slide into a table.  She ended up with three injuries including a possible elbow stress fracture, making us very aware of the power of the Drake.

Ship 7375 October 2018

Although we did not like hearing that we were stalling for a day in the Drake Passage, we realized the ship was not built for passenger safety in a storm so it was a necessary delay.   We learned many details about that previous night’s storm from the staff members who had access to radar.  It turned out that we had faced 60 knot (70 mph) winds and a wave height of 7 m (23 ft) overnight.  By morning, the storm had calmed down and the weather charts looked like this at our current position on Day 2.

We were able to begin moving towards Antarctica again the following morning (Day 3) around 4am.  I wasn’t able to catch a video of the worst of the storms but on one part of the crossing during mild weather, I caught a video of the ship negotiating some of the waves.  As you can see in the images above and in the video below, I tried to keep the phone level with the ship so that you can see the tilt when comparing it to the horizon.

We were very grateful to enter the calm waters of the Antarctic Sound on Day 4.  Having never experienced seasickness for such an extended period of time, I was ecstatic! Crossing the Drake in a storm is almost considered a type of badge of honor among Antarctica veterans and I definitely earned it!

Next up, crushing ice!