Sam Edmonds prefers to summer in the coldest place on earth. As a polar expedition guide, he escorts tourists braving the relatively balmy (but still borderline uninhabitable) Antarctic during the narrow window of time in which it’s safe(ish) to visit. That window is closed for now, but thankfully Edmonds is also an accomplished photographer who has managed to take some rare aerial photos of the frozen continent. He has kindly provided a complimentary tour of the Antarctic, by way of words and images at least, for you to enjoy from the comfort of your well-heated home.
How exactly does someone become an Antarctic tour guide?
That’s a good question! The guides I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years have come from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Obviously, the common denominator is experience in, and a love for, the Antarctic, but how they got to that point varies. Some are scientists, PhDs in ornithology or biology; others come from a purely logistical or some kind of military background. In my case, I was given a rare opportunity to visit the continent as a camera operator for a TV series we filmed in the austral summer of 2013/14. From there, it all just kind of snowballed (so to speak).
How much time do you spend down there? What’s it like being on the ice for so long?
I usually spend about four months of the year there. In the context I’m working within now, it’s very much a maritime sort of life. We’re basing ourselves on a vessel and taking Zodiacs out for excursions, research or whatever needs to be done on the day. Sometimes, we spend a huge amount of the time on the ice, around glaciers, et cetera; occasionally, we are only experiencing the place from the ship for a few days. There are some creature comforts on board the vessel that make it a little more bearable, but I prefer to be out in the small boats among the brash ice.
What’s the story behind this photo series?
This series largely came about through a unique opportunity I had to spend some considerable time in a small aircraft above the Antarctic. Drones are (outside of heavily regulated research) basically banned in the region for various reasons and flying there in small planes or helicopters can be incredibly difficult and dangerous, so this series offers somewhat of a rare glimpse of the Antarctic from above. Seeing tabular icebergs the size of some Pacific islands from the water is one experience; from the air, it’s entirely different.
What are the challenges of photographing the Antarctic from above?
This depends on what kind of aircraft you’re taking to the air in, but in our case, the main concern was the cold. We were flying in a helicopter that had a carburetted engine, so ‘carb icing’ was a constant threat. On top of this, the weather being particularly volatile around much of the continent means that katabatic winds and fog banks are also very real worries.
It can also be quite challenging from a photographic perspective. Shooting with the aircraft doors off is not a very comfortable experience, so often, for the sake of the pilot, I was shooting through the windows. This can make for a whole spectrum of undesirable artefacts in one’s images. Having said that, the pilot I was working with on most of these occasions was incredibly cognisant of our want for certain images and particular angles. The ‘poached egg’ iceberg shot from directly above: I owe that one completely to our talented Alaskan pilot.
If you’ve seen one iceberg, have you seen them all?
Ha! I’m not sure whether to answer this from a purely philosophical angle or not. The short answer is no. It’s something that we often discuss at length as guides in the Antarctic, because a lot of people have very little understanding about how exactly ice is formed in the natural world and the incredibly vast array of forms it can take. Brash ice, grease ice, pancake ice, fast ice, growlers, tabulars, glacial ice, sea ice: these are just a small portion of the terms we’re describing ice with on a daily basis and are somewhat testament to how varied it can be. I still see icebergs that completely stun and surprise me.
What has stayed with you the most since this trip?
While it was obviously a real privilege to be able to fly around the Antarctic in a helicopter – an experience that was a sensory and aesthetic anomaly – it was also kind of bittersweet. We spent a good few weeks marvelling at these icebergs and their forms, but you always have that thought in the back of your mind that this very iceberg might have come about due to anthropogenic climate change. The Antarctic is so incredibly vast, still so relatively unexplored, and there is so much data yet to be collected and processed about what exactly is going on there under the climate change model. But certainly, when you read those news pieces about the plight of an Adélie penguin colony or the collapse of an ice shelf, the thought of those indicators stick with you as you’re flying over pack ice or sailing past a glacial face. There’s also a fairly lengthy list of other threats facing the continent – whaling ceased recently, but krill fishing, IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing, sea bird entanglement and other things like this are concerns we are going to have to address quite abruptly in the near future.
For more cold snaps, check out Edmonds' Instagram.