I’ve travelled to more than 30 countries all over the world — French Polynesia, much of Europe, Scandinavia, China, Australia, across North America — but the One Ocean Expeditions journey I took to Antarctica in January 2016 was one of the best experiences I’ve had. Part of the draw for me was photography. I’d seen some of photographer Martin Bailey’s images of Antarctica and said to myself, “I want to take pictures like that.” The variety of what I saw down there was just incredible. Elephant seals, thousands and thousands of penguins — gentoos, chinstraps, adélies, kings — humpback whales, killer whales, icebergs. God, those icebergs were magnificent. Three kilometres long! You don’t get to take pictures like that at home.
When we weren’t onboard learning from the staff about the places and things we’d seen — whether it was the Falkland Islands and the war that happened there, the remnants of the whaling era or penguin rookeries — we were out exploring. One day, we went swimming at the beach on Deception Island, which is an active volcano in the South Shetland Islands. The sand was steaming, but the water was maybe 3 C. One way or another, though, I was going in, even if it was only up to my knees. It was just one of those things I had to do. I remember thinking, “OK, I’ve been in the Antarctic Ocean and have the picture to prove it. Now I can get out of this water!” I’ll never forget that.
I’ve done more than 70 expeditions to Antarctica, and people always ask me why I keep returning. There isn’t one specific thing that pulls me back, because I’ve come to realize that every time I go, something different is going to happen. You leave without any idea of what that could be — seeing an amazing iceberg, having an encounter with an elephant seal, getting a glimpse of an emperor penguin — and it’s that sense of going into the unknown that makes the whole experience so worthwhile.
I say “unknown” because being in Antarctica is like being on another planet that’s just all nature. When you’re there, it’s as if creation happened and then everything just stopped. And because internet access is limited, you’re almost totally cut off, which forces you to be in the moment and connect with nature. As a photographer on these journeys, I work long days, which is physically demanding, but spiritually, my mind gets so much energy from the experience.
One of the great things about One Ocean is that they always include space for scientists and researchers onboard. As a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, that’s important to me. My main goal is to enhance the experience of the guests, of course, but it’s also a chance to create ambassadors for conservation. Yes, I can help you take better pictures, but then you go out and show the world what we have in Antarctica and what we risk losing if we don’t protect it.
Being on the One Ocean ships made a huge difference to my Into the Arctic project — I’m only able to access so much landscape when on land — but it was also just incredible to wake up every day in a new part of the Arctic, especially because I was still in full-on painting and filming mode. [Trépanier started his Arctic Passage painting shown above during his One Ocean Expeditions trip. — Ed.] Having the opportunity to see parts of the region I otherwise never would have seen was a big thrill for me as an artist and as a traveller.
There were many standout moments, but one I’ll never forget was when we were sailing down the west coast of Baffin Island. The sun had just set, but there was still a glow in the sky. When I walked around to the east side of the deck, I saw that the moon was beginning to rise and noticed northern fulmars gliding alongside the ship in the moonlight. Then the northern lights started to come up; they were weak, but still dancing. I thought it couldn’t get any better, but then I looked down at the water and saw it was aglow with bioluminescent creatures — they were like fireflies of the sea.
I wish that I’d had a camera that was able to capture the combination of those four kinds of light. To have been able to put that on film would have been wonderful, but it will just have to remain one of those great travel experiences that I tell people about.
Before I hopped on a plane and started my journey to Canada’s East Coast, I knew a little about the region — major cities, landmarks, national parks, those sorts of things — but I’d never been there. The “Fins and Fiddles” trip with One Ocean Expeditions changed that, obviously, but in the most unexpectedly amazing and rewarding ways.
I was looking forward to going to Sable Island, even though I expected it to be nothing more than a sandbar. But it was far more than that. The sheer amount of wildlife on the island blew me away, from the world’s largest breeding colony of grey seals to birds such as the roseate tern, and the horses, of course — you can’t see horses like that anywhere else on the planet.
I think part of what made stopping in places such as Sable Island, the Magdalen Islands and Gros Morne National Park so memorable was the variety of ways I was able to explore them. I got to learn about and see the incredibly diverse landscapes, wildlife and cultures of
the region while biking, hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and going on Zodiac cruises. Yes, you’re on a ship, but these experiences allow you to explore even farther, to have more freedom. When we sailed into Bonne Bay by Gros Morne National Park, we used stand-up paddleboards to get up close to a waterfall. That sort of flexibility gives you an experience you just can’t get on a cruise with 5,000 other people.
I’ll set up my easel and wait quite a while to understand the dynamics of the beach, because you don’t want to be in a spot where wildlife normally passes through. The animals in Antarctica aren’t really habituated to people, so they’re curious, but not usually aggressive or territorial. I’ve had king penguins come up, take a look at the palette and canvas and move on — “Nothing much interesting to see here,” they seem to be saying! I’ve had an elephant seal pup get a little too close and start nudging my easel, looking for milk or something. We never approach the animals, of course, but encounters like this happen, and when they do, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many passengers to have that sort of innocence right in front of them.
We’re all humbled by the polar regions, and I always think of being in Antarctica as a chance to reset my senses — to clean my palette, so to speak. Being there wipes the slate clean of our preconceptions of our ordinary lives because we’re experiencing an otherworldly, almost fantastical place that we’re not used to.
I remember being a bit overwhelmed and anxious about missing something on my first few journeys, because you can’t help but want to take it all in. But now I tell people that the quality of what they see is more important than the quantity. Quality, gratitude and humility — that’s why we go to Antarctica.
Last summer I was working as an expedition leader with One Ocean Expeditions on a trip to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and saw something you don’t
We were off Nordaustlandet, which is the second-largest island in Svalbard, sailing alongside a 160-kilometre-long ice cliff that’s part of the Austfonna ice cap, looking for polar bears. I was outside on the top deck and had already seen a few — one that was sitting on top of the cliff, two more that were on a little iceberg below it and two more courting — when I spotted one in the water swimming toward us.
Normally we see curious bears when we’ve been nosed into the sea ice for hours at a time; eventually, they approach the ship, whether it’s a mother and a cub or an individual bear. But this one swam right up to the bow, then actually circled the vessel. It was amazing because the water was so clear that we could see its entire body and how it moved, how powerful it was. A few of us joked that if the gangway had been down, the bear might have walked up it!
You always hope to see polar bears on the ice or on land from the Zodiacs that we take out on the water, but to see one swim to the ship and and then all the way around it was a pretty special experience — not just for passengers but for staff, too.
I like to say that I have the best office in the world, and sharing it with guests so that they can witness something like that is a great part of my job.
Working with One Ocean Expeditions has been a huge departure from being a photojournalist because I was used to covering news and current events, which means predominantly photographing people. So when I sailed to Antarctica for the first time, I didn’t expect much, but I soon realized it was an opportunity to document not just the spectacular wildlife and scenery but the passengers, too. Some of my favourite shots are of people either laughing uncontrollably or crying; in both cases it’s because they’re simply overwhelmed by what they’re seeing.
I have three really memorable photos from my experiences in the Antarctic.
The first is of Richard Symonds, an artist who does incredible paintings and drawings of wildlife. I got him lying on his belly in the middle of whiteout conditions, holding a GoPro on a stick, with a penguin staring right into his camera. The tears are coming down his face, but his smile makes me want to cry every time I see it.
The second is of an extremely cold and windy excursion to a beach, where I had penguins come very close to my camera. They were completely iced over, even their eyes, but they were like, “Well, whatever.” They were like kids in a playground.
The third is of a lady who was sitting in a Zodiac looking through her binoculars. But when she put them down, she didn’t look right, so I zoomed in and captured this big teardrop coming out of her eye as she was staring off into the landscape. It was an absolutely incredible moment.