The Penguin Diaries - Part 4
August 1st today, though I don¹t expect to send this email for a week or so when we're next back on station.
Gazing out over uniform sea ice - the new sun should be out there, glancing over the top of the bergs, a fraction of a degree higher with each day. Two weeks ago we caught a tantalising glimpse of that great bright life-giving orb. The excitement of this glimpse though was short lived and for the past two weeks, we've been locked in dark, dank, cold sea fog and mist. Reminder that we are, after all, living on the sea; albeit a frozen one. Even the deepest darkest days of June didn't feel as dark and encroaching as now.
I keep reminding myself though that I'm sure, or I hope, that this attitude also reflects the months now that we've been on location in some pretty testing conditions. It is of course an Antarctic winter and nothing is going to be simple.
But adversity aside; reward for dressing like a blimp each day, living without sun and working with numb fingers, learning to perform the most delicate camera operations wearing the equivalent of boxing gloves we have been over the past months privy to what can only be described a magic.
Through June, the male emperor penguins, some 10, 000 of them huddled tightly together through dark and blizzard, gently cradling and incubating their precious egg. The females meanwhile departed back to sea at the end of May, to replenish their fat reserves spent producing the egg and fatten themselves to take on the rearing the chick in two months time.
June 5th and the sun dived beneath the horizon, remaining out of sight for the next three weeks. Remarkably though, there still remained more light than I ever would have anticipated. A vague twilight with a magical quality and the location of course is completely white, every surface has reflective quality and every angle is a reflector board. At midday and the hidden sun's zenith, on a clear day the sky would glow with soft pinks along the horizon and deep mauve overhead. During this time the remaining male penguins gather in tight groups, or Œhuddles' packed tight like bricks to conserve heat.
We learnt to fairly accurately judge the temperature by the density of the huddle: -15 and a pretty relaxed multiple huddles, perhaps 25 loose groups spread out and constantly breaking up and reforming, steam lofting off as they break up. Below 20 and there would be less huddles, perhaps 2 or three and these would be tightly packed with birds jammed for the warmth. On blizzard days when the temperature plummeted accompanied by a fierce wind and driving snow, the entire rookery would bind together in a single tight huddle packed like bricks. Through the waves of snow, one could glimpse the constant spiralling motion of the huddle as the windward and exposed birds peel off and sought shelter on the lee of the huddle. On these foul days, the huddle moved, or spiralled its location up to hundreds of meters.
All dramatic visual material if you can get it and recording in such conditions, it goes with saying has its challenges. Blizzard imagery, not surprisingly, has proved the greatest ordeal and I'm relieved now that we at last, after working in three different blizzards have a solid sequence in the can.
I've got to admit that I found working in such conditions bloody scary. It's a fine line between control, or the wind picking up that little bit more to completely close-out visibility and robbed of vision, hearing, touch and all other senses, blundering back to our shelter; a caravan sized hut on skis anchored on a vast plain of sea ice was quite a series venture. Very easy to stumble past, and in the driving snow, you could miss it by only a meter but that may as well be a mile. We were careful to plot bearings for our return to shelter with GPS and compass (in 20 C GPS function¹s very poorly, the LCD display doesn¹t work and batteries die) plus run out Œbliz lines' from the hut. A 100-meter rope in parallel with the direction of the wind trailing out from the hut, like a drift line on a dive boat. The idea here being that if we blew off course and presuming downwind, then good chance to stumble upon this rope and guide to shelter.
One's own health and safety covered, then the complex issue of keeping equipment operating. I've toyed with so many ways of weather proofing cameras over the years, customising a variety of flash covers, barneys and bags, however, one of the most efficient things in really grim conditions in my experience, is a roll of cling wrap and completely wrap up the camera lens etc, leaving accessibly bare minimum of controls required. This of course has its operational limitations, but it¹s proved storm proof in the past. That is until now an Antarctic winter blizzard is a whole new level of maelstrom. For starters, in 28 C, nothing sticks - camera tape, cling wrap - all sets rigid and brittle and the super fine wind blasted powdered snow enters even the finest gaps where it then compacts and sets like concrete.
In our first attempt, the talcum-like consistency snow found it¹s way into every nook and cranny, camera controls quickly became blocked, seized and after just a few hundred feet of film had been exposed, the camera locked up. Pretty heart breaking considering the effort required just being out in such conditions, and in bad weather with the brief period of winter twilight, light enough to film in lasts only about an hour. In the end, I gave up on trying to protect the camera and lenses and let the snow have its way. This sure looked nasty, having an expensive and delicate 35 mm camera blizzed up, caked in snow, but it worked surprisingly well and the snow was later removed surprisingly effectively with a brush. As long as this was done in cold before any could melt. This proved the routine over three separate filming sessions in winter blizzards during June/July and the images should look extraordinary. They'll provide a rare window onto the survival of the only animal breeding through the Antarctic winter.
Throughout the DS60 proved a steady rock in the sea of howling wind and snow. Most of the blizzard work was done on a 600 mm lens (it's extra important to keep at least 50 meters distance from the penguins when they're huddled because a sharp movement or scare could cause the huddle to split, the result is stampede-like as birds move out of the crush a drop their eggs) and the need for a super steady platform exaggerated by this distance and wind was considerable. The camera on DS60 locked off beautifully, my head though I had less control over. Clad in down hood and ruff (a fur rim to protect the eyes and face), in 40+ knots of wind, the combination like a spinnaker! Causing my eye to bob against the viewfinder, vibrating the camera with each knock. Many shots I simple had no choice by to lock off, close the eyepiece and roll remotely.
I'm in no rush to battle more blizzards for now, in fact when next I'm woken by the wind screaming over the hut, I'm looking forward to just tucking up tighter in my sleeping bag, secure in it's warmth, satisfied in the knowledge that for all the blood, sweat (OK little sweat, lets say frostnip) and tears we put into those shoots, I'm confident we've some spectacular results.