Lessons from Antarctica

We were very fortunate to have been invited on an 18-day cruise with One Ocean Expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula with stops at the Falkland Islands and South Georgia as part of a Photographic Symposium. We thought we would share with you some lessons learned from this adventure to the bottom of the world.

Cruising out of Ushuaia, Agentina

©Darwin Wiggett – Samantha cruising out of Ushuaia, Argentina

Darwin on the Antarctic Peninsula

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Darwin on the Antarctic Peninsula

Nature is Awe-Inspiring!

We all need nature in our lives and the more we connect with nature, the more we feel whole. We could see the impact that this wilderness had on people… many were moved to tears by the overwhelming enormity of the place or by the interaction they had with the wildlife. While we were not to approach wildlife, if we were quiet and still, it would eventually pass close by. Even the most hardened among us will melt when a penguin waddles up for a face-to-face encounter or an elephant seal pup snuggles near your leg. For most people, Antarctica is one of the most intense direct encounters with nature they will ever have. This place leaves its mark!

©Darwin Wiggett - Penguin encounter on the Falkland Islands

©Darwin Wiggett – Penguin encounter on the Falkland Islands

©Darwin Wiggett - Who needs a telephoto lens?

©Darwin Wiggett – Who needs a telephoto lens?

Yet the World is Smaller than We Think

For modern humans, traveling to the end of the world is really no big deal. What used to be epic and dangerous and scary is now just a little inconvenient. The hardest part of the journey is waiting in lines at airports and deciding what movies to choose while you jet across the stratosphere at 600 MPH. Even in Antarctica, where one might think travel is extreme, our toughest choices were whether we should skip the bacon for breakfast and eat the healthy selection of fruit instead. Excursions ashore were safely negotiated in zodiacs with rarely a drop of water splashing us in our expedition wetsuits. The only danger we really faced was that of our own making when we got so carried away with photography that we forgot to watch our step and slipped in some penguin guano. We were impressed (or depressed) by just how accessible the Antarctic wilderness is. Humans are everywhere on this small planet and you can see our ‘footprint’ no matter where you go. Can this wilderness survive the sheer demands and impact that humans have on this planet?

©Darwin Wiggett - Humans are everywhere, are impact is felt to the ends of the earth.

©Darwin Wiggett – Humans are everywhere; our impact is felt to the ends of the earth.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Chinstrap Penguins on the run!

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Chinstrap Penguins on the run!

When it Comes to Gear, Less is More

Big cameras, big lenses and travel just don’t mix. This trip was full of photographers with the latest full-frame dSLRs and large, fast telephoto lenses. The amount of camera gear weighing down the zodiacs was astounding. Giant bags of gear and bulky expedition wetskins meant most photographers’ walks on shore maxed out at 100 meters. Hauling all that gear made people tired and soon they had no energy to be creative. Some of the best photos we saw on the trip were made by the spouses of more ‘serious’ photographers: with just a point-n-shoot in hand, the spouses could be more spontaneous in the changing conditions and grabbed great photos while their gear-laden partner fiddled with their equipment.  A small lightweight and responsive kit is the way to go. It wasn’t long into the trip when photographers with two systems (e.g. dSLR versus small mirrorless camera or a point-n-shoot) were leaving the big guns behind in the boat for the joy of a small camera.

©Darwin Wiggett - The burden of big gear!

©Darwin Wiggett – The burden of big gear!

©Darwin Wiggett - The joy of small gear!

©Darwin Wiggett – The joy of small gear!

Speaking of Cameras, They Sometimes Get in the Way

This trip was full of photographers. They take pictures, constantly. A camera is always in front of their face. Some photographers never really saw Antarctica except through the filter of the camera. They interacted more with the box than the environment. In fact several of the staff who have done dozens of trips to Antarctica told us that this group was the most disconnected from nature of any group they have ever seen. Nature photographers disconnected from nature? But it was true – to really appreciate this place, we learned that you had put the camera down and just look and be in the moment. In our busy lives, we have forgotten how to just take things in… we are so programmed to do and to produce. Some of our favorite memories are not the photos but the quiet moments of observation.

©Darwin Wiggett - We often kept our gear packed away and just spent time observing nature.

©Darwin Wiggett – We often kept our gear packed away and just spent time observing nature.

Speaking of Observation, Fur Seals are Scary!

We admit it’s hard to concentrate on photos or quiet nature observation when you are fearing for your life! Fur seals love to charge and bite humans. We can’t blame them, we are passing through their territory and they want to chase us out. But dodging fur seals can be stressful. Take us back and put us in the Canadian Rockies with a few grizzly bears and we’ll feel much safer!

©Darwin Wiggett - Clearing the path of fur seals

©Darwin Wiggett – Keeping the fur seals off the human path

Being Offline was Awesome!

We were offline for over three weeks and we loved it. The constant barrage of email and social media is just so much noise in the modern world. Being disconnected so we could fully connect with nature was just so great! We highly recommend at least one sabbatical away from the internet per year!

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Being offline and constantly in nature was amazing!

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Being offline and constantly in nature was amazing!

And Finally…You Don’t Have to Travel Far to be Inspired

For us, our trip to Antarctica reinforced something we already know. Here in Canada we live in a country of awesome natural beauty. There is a lifetime of inspiration here… let’s not take what we have for granted. No matter where you live there is little need to travel far if inspiration is what you crave.

©Darwin Wiggett - Inspiration happens anywhere you are and anywhere you look.

©Darwin Wiggett – Inspiration happens anywhere you are and anywhere you look.

To watch a video of our trip with photos from the symposium’s participants compiled and produced by Daisy Gilardini and David MacEown, please see this link.


About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.


  1. Mark
    December 18, 2014

    Great post! We definitely need to stop and watch nature every now and then. As I hope to be able to visit that part of the world next year, I am curious as to which lenses you found yourself using the most on the trip. Having now been there, what would your gear recommendations be for someone traveling to Antarctica and South Georgia?


    • Darwin Wiggett
      December 18, 2014

      Hi Mark,

      I took a crop-sensor camera with a 17- 70 mm zoom (most-used lens and a 300mm lens. (that was it!). Sam took a Nikon crop sensor with a 17-55mm lens and a 50-150mm lens. Both used equally. I did miss a fish-eye lens which would be cool for the boat. For full frame camera users most people had a wide zoom (e.g 16-35mm), a standard zoom (24-70mm), a tele zoom (70-200 or 70-300mm). You really don;t need anything longer than 300mm. Several people used micro 4/3rds camera (Olympus or Panasonic) or mirrorless APS camera like the Fuji X-T1. They loved the small size and good results!

  2. Deb Ehrens
    December 18, 2014

    As always I appreciate your perspective on how we photographers connect with natural world.

  3. Rick Andrews
    December 18, 2014

    Great post and video – looks like an amazing place to experience.

  4. Fran Gallogly
    December 18, 2014

    Loved the video. What a fantastic trip!

  5. Craig
    December 18, 2014

    Fantastic and inspiring as always Darwin!

    You certainly hit the nail on the head when you spoke of being disconnected with nature when our faces are always behind the camera. My wife taught me to just stop, stand back and enjoy a few years ago. She is not a photographer but her words changed me and gave me a whole new “look” into nature.

    I now carry a cropped sensor camera and a single lens, 24mm to 300mm. I travel frequently for work and this camera / lens combo pretty much does it all. I will throw my polarizer in the bag, the charger and that’s it.

    Thanks again Darwin and Merry Christmas!

  6. Dave
    December 19, 2014

    Great post with a lot of truths about our modern life!

    Best, Dave

  7. Andy Simpson
    December 19, 2014

    Wonderful message Darwin and Sam. Everyone I think needs that reminder about less is always so much more with almost every aspect in our lives. Connecting to the things that matter and appreciating all we have is a perfect message for this time of year. Thanks for reminding us!

  8. Guy Kerr
    December 19, 2014

    Lovely, lovely post!
    Having done this trip 7 years ago it was a great “re-live”. I think I even recognize some of the birds by name – Bill, Thelma etc.
    As for enjoying the moment, I have to remind myself of that continually. Be it Antarctic, Machupicchu or the old mine site at Nordegg one needs to take in the place other than behind the camera.

    Glad you enjoyed and you are correct in that here at home is equally as lovely.

  9. Christopher Strattan
    December 21, 2014

    One Ocean Expeditions should be put out of business!!! I don’t understand what gives them the right to flood pristine environments like the one shown in your photos with a bunch of amateur photographers who obviously, from the distance they weren’t keeping, had no respect for the animal life whatsoever. I couldn’t believe how many photographers (?) were disturbing the penguins in their natural habitat! They are not there for our enjoyment and these idiots certainly were not Ph.Ds from National Geographic! Leave these poor animals alone to live in peace and go photograph your own species in their destructive urban mess! When I first saw these photos I couldn’t stop crying. You do not have the right to destroy one of the last pristine environments on our planet.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      December 25, 2014

      Even if no tourists went to Antarctica, the bottom of the world is threatened by the impact of billions of humans on this planet. For example, the hole in the ozone is huge over Antarctica and is definitely human caused. And unless you deny climate change (and I think doing so that is totally naive) then that threat is hugely impacting the Antarctic wildlife more than any visitation does (in fact, studies done by “Phd’s” have shown there is no significant difference in nesting success of colonies of penguins visited by tourists versus those not visited). The impact of humans (especially in developed countries) doing their daily consumerism and consumption has big impacts every where, even all the way down to Antarctica. If we really are interested in protecting Antarctica we need an economy based not on the assumption of infinite growth and mass consumerism but one based on quality and abundance of life for all species. Until we change the world economy from infinite consumption all the world’s wild places are threatened. And changes happen from the bottom up with our own lives. What kind of life do you lead that does not have some deleterious impact on wild areas? The impact of visiting wild places does have positive effects on many visitors making them go home and want to make small but significant changes to their lives to help reduce their global impact. For others, I agree with you, the trip was just another thing to buy and consume so they could say “been there, done that and I got the t-shirt”.

  10. Larry
    December 22, 2014

    Nothing personal Darwin,
    BUT, in this last set of photos, I think that Samantha proved to be far more photogenic .
    Merry Christmas and welcome home. Lol lol lol.

  11. Becky
    December 1, 2015

    Great post. I’m traveling with One Ocean at the end of December and appreciated the advice on keeping it simple. The slide show is wonderful. Great to mix up stills with motion. It seems to me that observing the behavior of the animals was a big part of the success of the photos. Thank you.


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