Photographing Antarctica: Penguins, Seals, and a Total Solar Eclipse
Antarctica is a bucket list destination for countless landscape and wildlife photographers, and for good reason. Dramatic, jagged mountain peaks rise high over colonies consisting of millions of penguins living on the frozen earth below. While photographing Antarctica is a rare experience in itself, photographing a total solar eclipse in Antarctica is akin to winning the lottery.
In November 2021, Photographer Andrew Studer boarded the Lindblad Expeditions ship National Geographic Endurance with the hope of not only capturing the rugged landscapes and stunning wildlife of Antarctica, but also a total solar eclipse set to take place on December 4.
Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions
At a Glance
Preparing For The Expedition
This would not be the first time photographer Andrew Studer had attempted to photograph a total solar eclipse. On August 21st 2017, Studer’s photos and film showing a rock climber in front of an eclipse in Oregon went viral, and it is easy to see why. With the 2021 eclipse being visible in the southern hemisphere, Studer worked with Lindblad Expeditions on a plan to capture the rare moment off the coast of Antarctica from one of the adventure tour company’s 15 expedition ships, the National Geographic Endurance.
“This plan all came together within just two weeks, so it was a lot of last-minute preparation,” Studer says. “While initially, my focus was on how to capture the eclipse, my girlfriend Bailey O’Bar is a wedding photographer with a passion for wildlife, so she was very excited to see the penguins and seals.”
The quick two-week preparation time felt like a blur to Studer and the reality of what lay ahead did not kick in until the couple flew over Patagonia on their way to the staging city of Ushuaia, Argentina.
“Flying over Patagonia was stunning. I have never been, so being able to see the glaciers and mountains of this famous region from above was incredible,” Studer says. “I had been so focused on the eclipse I hadn’t thought about what else was in store for us. The scenes below me snapped me out of that haze and got me really excited to photograph the landscapes of Antarctica.”
Studer and O’Bar landed in Ushuaia and were immediately met by the Lindblad Expeditions team who would transport them to their home for the next three weeks, the 126-passenger National Geographic Endurance. Over 24-days, the ship would visit the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands.
Studer describes his initial reaction while boarding one of the newest ships in the Lindblad fleet: “Usually when I travel, it’s a little more bare-bones, so to speak. So when I first set foot on the ship, I was blown away. Everything on the ship was beautiful, from the rooms to the common areas. But maybe my favorite part of the ship was the artwork. The ship is home to an incredible permanent art exhibit called Change. It features mediums such as painting, photography, video, sculpture, and even soundscape, all curated by acclaimed artist Zaria Forman. Over 50 artists contributed work showing their interpretation of the changing landscapes due to climate change.”
As the couple unpacked their gear and clothing, the remainder of the guests continued to board. Soon after, the ship was on its way south, through Drake’s Passage to the world’s most inaccessible continent: Antarctica.
Before reaching the shores of Antarctica, the National Geographic Endurance explored the coastlines of the South Shetland Islands and then disembarked on Barrientos Island. This island is home to colonies of both chinstrap and gentoo penguins, which enjoy slightly warmer temperatures than their peers just south.
“After a long voyage at sea, we were lucky to get the all-clear for a Zodiac landing on Barrientos Island. Obviously, there are no docks for a massive ice-cutting expedition ship, so in order to get to land, you assemble into groups of 10 or 12 on a small Zodiac boat which takes you a short distance to the beach,” Studer describes.
“There were really beautiful mountains and sea stacks, so when we disembarked, my mind was already overloaded with photo ideas. And then I saw the penguins. This was my first time ever seeing penguins, so instead of getting my camera up to my eye, I took a couple of minutes to simply take in the incredible experience,” he adds.
“This was also my first time seeing the local Weddell seal, so I started incorporating him into the photos as well. The thing that struck me right away was how expressive the seals’ faces are. They are very photogenic and I was excited to know this was far from the only one I would see on our expedition.”
After three hours on shore, Studer, O’Bar, and the other guests returned to the warmth and comfort of the ship, but the photography was not over yet.
With such an enormous area to cover over a three-week expedition, Studer and O’Bar spent a great deal of time on the National Geographic Endurance. Luckily for them, the majority of the time spent on board has the adventure-seeking guests calmly cruising through some of the most untouched and wild landscapes on the planet. With about 20 hours of sunlight during the summer, this leads to endless photography opportunities without having to do much work.
“Much of what I shot on the expedition was actually from the ship,” Studer explains.
“The coolest part for me was the constant changing of perspective that the moving boat provided, especially with a telephoto lens. The landscapes were constantly changing. No matter the scene I just photographed, within minutes it would look completely different and lead to a totally unique composition. When you are hiking you have to walk for quite some time to change your perspective like that, but being on this incredible ship moving among the landscapes, the hard work of getting a different perspective was being done for me, and in a very short amount of time.”
After a two day voyage navigating the unpredictable waters of the Drake Passage and exploring the Shetland Islands, the National Geographic Endurance arrived in Antarctica. Far from the South Pole lies the Antarctic Peninsula, which resembles an icy tentacle that reaches out from the Antarctic mainland, towards South America’s Tierra del Fuego.
For Studer, the early wake up call on his alarm was well worth the temporary pain it inflicted.
“Sunrise this far south in the summer is about 3 AM, and it was pretty freezing when I got to the upper deck of the ship to shoot,” he says. “However, I knew right away how lucky I was to be one of the few who braved the early time and the cold when I looked around me. We were transiting through a waterway between the Antarctic Peninsula and Anvers and Brabant Islands, so I was surrounded by dramatic mountains that were aglow in the early morning light. There was a large amount of floating ice on either side of us, and as the ship moved through it, the ice would line up perfectly for perspective photos with the mountains in the background.
“When we got to our anchor point outside of Neko Harbor, there were some stunning glaciers in the distance, and you could see the gentoo penguins onshore. As the call for breakfast went out, I opted to bring my camera to the dining room.
“Meals were an interesting part of the trip for me,” Studer says. “All the meals were incredible, but I found myself bringing my camera with me to the table as I would constantly see something new outside the window that I would want to shoot. This morning in particular, I could see the gentoo penguins porpoising in the water outside of our ship. Essentially, they would dive down deep into the water and when they come back up, they jump out of the water, higher than I thought they would. It took some studying of their behavior before I was able to follow small groups and get some great shots of them coming out of the water. It was another reminder about how many photographic possibilities existed from the comfort of the ship.”
Having felt like he had already captured days’ worth of photos in just one morning, Studer was reminded that the day had technically yet to begin as the call to disembark came through the ship’s announcement system.
“Even the Zodiac landing here was an adventure of its own,” he says. “As the Zodiac maneuvers through the floating ice, penguins were porpoising on all sides of us. When we landed, I was overwhelmed. Even though this was a smaller colony, they are so packed together it was hard to capture photographs that showed the personalities of the penguins. But as we waited, we were able to get the occasional penguin who would separate themselves from the colony and I wound up getting some great shots of them with the glacier and the landscapes in the background.
“But perhaps my favorite part of this shore expedition was seeing the penguins walk from land and into the water to fish. We rented high quality water boots onboard the ship that allowed us to stand almost knee deep in the cold Southern Ocean. We noticed a small group of gentoo penguins that were going out to the water to fish. When they would come back towards shore, they would splash their wings in a frantic, beautiful display. After photographing the penguins on land for a while, this was a nice change of pace and led to some great shots before we jumped back on the Zodiac and returned to the ship.”
South Georgia Island
South Georgia Island is a large, mountainous island that lies about halfway between the southeast coastline of Argentina and Antarctica, but 1,200 miles to the east. This far distance means that the island has a very different climate and landscape than what Studer and the passengers on National Geographic Endurance had experienced thus far.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect at South Georgia Island,” Studer explains. “But over the three-day period we were there, I was blown away. The wildlife consisting of King Penguins, Elephant Seals, and Antarctic fur seals was everywhere, and the landscape backdrops were stunning. It was inspiring to see these mountains seemingly meet the ocean. We got some sunny days here as well, which led to some interesting photos which showed the cold, snow-capped mountain peaks with clean sunlight on the wildlife in the foreground.
“Our first landing on South Georgia was Gold Harbor, and I honestly can say it’s the most beautiful place that I have been fortunate enough to visit. You have this assortment of incredible wildlife with these remarkable glaciers and mountains. The penguins were interacting with the seals, and they jumbled together in this entanglement of nature’s beauty. While I was shooting, I couldn’t stop laughing at how humorous the wildlife here was. The King Penguins were awkwardly hobbling around while the elephant seals had these goofy expressions on their faces.
Impressed by South Georgia’s diverse beauty, the photographer knew this would be a perfect time to add to his passion project, Space to Roam.
“Over the last few years, I have been obsessed with capturing stories of a fictional astronaut exploring otherworldly landscapes here on earth,” Studer explains. “I want to celebrate these special places and raise awareness to conserving them in a unique way that wasn’t just your typical landscape photos. The idea was born when I found this old space suit and didn’t hesitate to buy it. Since then, the suit has been all over the world, leading to some pretty unique images.
“I loved my Space to Roam shots from Gold Harbor,” Studer states. “Using a telephoto, I was able to capture shots where the compression of the lens makes it seem like the penguins and the space man are right next to each other, even though in reality, quite a distance separates them. The penguins themselves felt alien to me, so this was a great way for me to express that. And here, there were so many penguins, they almost became the otherworldly landscape themselves.”
St. Andrew’s Bay
The next morning, a short ride along the coast north led Studer and the National Geographic Endurance to St. Andrew’s Bay, where the largest colony of king penguins resides in South Georgia. It is estimated that over one million king penguins make up this colony, in which 250,000 breeding pairs exist. The “oaken boys,” young penguins who have not molted their baby down feathers in exchange for their waterproof coats, frolic in abundance here. The scene led Studer to play with compositions that showed the endless layers of penguins that overtook the landscape.
“We hiked up a small hill to get a better view of the colony, and it was incredible seeing it from above,” he says. “They are so closely packed together, and I spent a lot of time capturing more abstract type images with my telephoto lens. Even though I had photographed penguins for seemingly weeks by this point, this experience and the photos I captured felt truly unique.”
The Total Solar Eclipse
The Lindblad Expeditions team had planned the itinerary of this Antarctica expedition with the total solar eclipse on December 4, 2021 in mind. During the eclipse, the National Geographic Endurance would be transiting from South Georgia Island to the Falkland Islands. Not being locked into a specific location allowed the captain of the ship to change course as needed, as the weather is always a factor in this rugged region. With the eclipse slated to occur around 4:00 AM, the captain and his crew spent all night studying the weather maps to give the ship and its passengers the best chance of witnessing the rare phenomenon.
As noted by Naturalist Joe Holliday in the daily expedition report, even with all of the planning, the Antarctic weather is always fighting back.
“We had our hopes up because of the clear sky at dawn. However, a cloud bank approached us, threatening our hopes for a view of the eclipse at sunrise. The ship turned around and started cruising away from the clouds. Then it happened: the sun rose at sunrise during the total solar eclipse!
“We saw a crescent-shaped sun rise since the sun was mostly blocked by the moon’s shadow. After a few minutes, all that was left of the sun was the famous “diamond ring” shape. Finally, darkness fell on the ocean all around us as the shadow totally blocked the sun. For one glorious minute, we saw the sun’s corona flare out on all sides of the shadow.”
The tireless and effective work of the ship’s crew paid off, as the team later found out that they were the only ship in the region lucky enough to witness the total solar eclipse.
“It turns out, the satellite images from that event show almost 100% cloud cover in the region, except for this tiny window,” Studer describes.
“Somehow the captain was able to get us in this window when it mattered most. The fact that the eclipse happened right on the horizon, with this imposing cloud bank directly overhead made the images pretty unique. I still look back in awe at the work that the ship’s captain and his team did to make us some of the lucky few who were able to witness this total solar eclipse.”
As the National Geographic Endurance began the long trek back to Ushuaia, Argentina, the Falkland Islands would be the guests’ last land excursion.
Lying 300 miles east of Patagonia and 752 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula, the islands provided a reminder to Studer about just how far this adventure had taken him. He used the comfortable weather on land to focus on wrapping up another passion project he had during this trip: taking portrait photographs of the Naturalists who tirelessly guided the passengers over the three-week trip.
Of course, the Falkland Islands did provide one last chance for Studer to add to his wildlife portfolio. On Steeple Jason Island, he was able to photograph a massive colony of Black Browed Albatross.
“The Black Browed Albatross had these nests on the tussock grass that dotted the Steeple Jason Island landscape,” Studer says. “They were surprisingly relaxed with people around, so it was easy to get wider angle shots highlighting the environment as they nested.
“After living in the cold environments of Antarctica and South Georgia Island, this warmer, iceless landscape felt tropical. You have these white sand beaches filled with penguins and their young chicks, and to be honest, the penguins felt out of place after getting so used to seeing them on the ice!”
The Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Experience
After over three weeks at sea, Studer, O’Bar, and the other passengers disembarked on the stable ground at Ushuaia, Argentina and began their long journeys home. While Studer has traveled the Earth in search of the landscapes, wildlife and culture that make the world special, his adventure with Lindblad Expeditions on board the National Geographic Endurance may have topped them all. Additionally, his experience was much more than the photographs that he brought home with him.
“There are a lot of adjectives that I could use to describe my experience in Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands with Lindblad Expeditions,” Studer explains.
“But possibly, the one that sticks out the most is refreshing. These days, you hear a lot about the effects of climate change, and of course, this region provides an abundance of evidence that shows the effects in action. But even with that, it was refreshing to see that there is still hope. These areas still seem so untouched and the raw beauty of these locations are on full display, thanks to conservation efforts and how difficult they are to reach. Being able to experience these incredible locations in a way that doesn’t affect the wildlife’s natural habitat is critical. Lindblad was not only great about making sure we didn’t make an impact on land, but throughout the days, there was always a wide range of talks in the lounge given by the on-board Naturalists that explain how climate change affects the Antarctic region, while also showcasing what we can do to help advocate for positive change.”
He continues: “For me, not only did I leave with an incredible collection of photographs and experiences, but this expedition really opened my eyes to the untouched beauty of the world that still exists, but unfortunately, is still threatened. I will never forget this expedition, and I consider myself lucky that I was able to experience Antarctica before it changes. This trip also gave me hope that if we all work together, we may be able to preserve this region for generations to come.
“I went with Lindblad Expeditions to see the total eclipse in Antarctica. But I came back with so many images that mean even more to me than the eclipse,” Studer concludes. “We had so many ‘eclipse worthy’ moments. That feeling of photographing something so unique and rare followed me for the entire three-week expedition. I had that feeling when I saw the massive colony of King penguins on the beach in South Georgia, or every time I laid eyes on the incredible mountain and glacier landscapes of Antarctica. In South Georgia, we had this incredible ribbon of lenticular clouds catching this gorgeous orange light over the mountains below. It was all of these ‘eclipse like’ feelings that made for an exciting and rewarding photography experience that I will never forget. My only hope is that this won’t be my last expedition to Antarctica, and that thanks to conservation efforts, the untouched beauty will remain on my return with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic.”
More from Andrew Studer can be found on his website and Instagram.
More from Bailey O’Bar can be found on her website and Instagram.
Full disclosure: This article was brought to you by Lindblad Expeditions. Lindblad Expeditions is a global provider of small-ship expeditions and adventure travel experiences recognized as the category leader for its pioneering, cutting-edge programming and conservation commitment. Lindblad works in partnership with National Geographic to inspire people to explore and care about the planet. The organizations work in tandem to produce innovative marine expedition programs and to promote conservation and sustainable tourism around the world. Guests interact with and learn from leading scientists, naturalists and researchers while discovering stunning natural environments, above and below the sea, through state-of-the-art exploration tools.
Image credits: All photos by Andrew Studer and Baily O’Bar.