A thriller from the chiller

southern exposure

My fingers are numb to the bone. It's a dull and unpleasant ache that is nagging at my sensible side to put on a pair of gloves. The trouble is I hate working a camera with gloves on and the fingerless ones I bought for a trip to Iceland never surfaced when I was packing. So it's frozen fingertips or full-on thick gloves, the kind that mean you don't have any sensitivity of touch.

Up to this point, Antarctica has been rather benign. Our first landing at Mikkelsen Harbour coincided with gorgeous sunshine and not a breath of wind. Wrapped up like Russian dolls, we all had too many layers on and were almost melting by the time we'd hiked up a snowy hill to find the penguins. The biggest worry that day was whether we'd applied enough sunscreen to stop us looking like we'd spent too long in the tanning booth, rather than the scourge of frozen fingertips.

But two days in the Antarctic Peninsula can prove very different. Eventually, as the ache in my fingers turns to a more painful throb I relent and find the gloves stuffed in my backpack. It's the only choice really. There's a brutal wind at my back and if I don't cover my fingers soon I'll have absolutely no feeling left.

I'm lying face down in the snow (below), trying to shield the camera from the full force of the Antarctic gale. One rapidly aborted attempt to point the lens into the wind ended up with several centimetres of icy snow masking the glass! The snow is building up against my body but the scene I can see in front of me is too exciting to wimp out on now.

In-between total whiteouts caused by great swathes of rasping snow and ice spinning and whirling in gusts, I can see groups of Gentoo penguins shuffling across the landscape, heads bowed into the full force of the icy blast.

My challenge is to capture the severity of the scene I am witnessing. It's not image perfection I'm after but atmosphere. Precise focusing and perfect exposure are something of a pipe-dream. I am trusting the combination of my Canon EOS 1DX Mk II and Canon 100-400mm MkII lens to deliver and equally importantly, not die on me!

The wind keeps on howling and the snow keeps on pelting across Yankee Harbour in 'Hollywood disaster movie' proportions and I keep on fumbling with the controls on the camera, changing shutter speeds, aperture and altering my focusing point. It's not easy. In truth it's almost impossible but this is what I and my fellow adventurers travelled over 10,000 miles to experience the raw bite of nature in a place that to survive in year round, you have to be tough. I am in awe of the little gangs of gentoos for whom this is just another day at home. They may be small in stature but in terms of grit and determination, they are leviathans.

Out there in the maelstrom I can just make out a vague shape getting larger by the second. Blinking the snow off my eyelashes, I realise it is an elephant seal struggling across the icy ground towards the beach that lies somewhere off to my left. Bit by bit it hauls itself closer to me, finally resting a while after the effort required to sledge its bulky body across dry land.

It stops close to me and hunkers down against the wind, giving me the chance to take a few images. A lone gentoo penguin enters stage right and slightly behind the seal. I take four, maybe five frames (I'm working slowly in the conditions) before it's off again and I hope I've done it justice but doubt that anything I've shot will truly show the scene as I am seeing it at this moment.

The image above won me joint first place in the Hot/Cold category of the Travel Photographer of the Year 2018. A chance moment in the middle of a blizzard when I worked my socks off to get a shot that was a bit different. A telephoto lens, handheld at just 1/100sec in the worst of conditions for such things just to get some movement in the snow that is flying across the frame. I'm grateful for the elephant seal's decision to sit upright for a moment as she scanned the horizon for her escape to the sea and the little penguin that shuffled passed at precisely the right moment. Luck plays a massive part in these things.

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