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For most tourists, visiting Antarctica means living on a cruise ship. This is a review of a cruise that I took in February 2013 on the Ocean Diamond, a ship operated by Quark Expeditions. The article also includes some general tips on traveling to Antarctica and taking pictures there. (See my photos)
All Antarctica cruises take tourists to the same places, so this review concentrates on what is specific to the Ocean Diamond.
There are some interesting hikes and sights to see in Ushuaia so my advice is to arrange your flight so as to arrive at least two days prior to the cruise and enjoy the town (best restaurant: Kaupe).
Book your internal flights and hotels within Argentina on Orbitz or Expedia; Quark Expeditions quoted me 1.5-2X the rates that were available on Orbitz/Expedia.
We traveled in a balcony suite, which is spacious but is located on the top deck and therefore rolls more. This did not seem to be a factor, though, because nearly every passenger who is prone to motion sickness became seasick, despite the fact that the initial crossing of the Drake was exceptionally tame. Even the ship's doctor fell ill. The Ocean Diamond is one of the larger ships working in Antarctica and she has stabilizers, but there is something about the Southern Ocean that makes people sick. Choose a fly-in/fly-out tour if you are prone to seasickness. (Note that one advantage of the fly-in/fly-out tours is that you depart from Chile, a vastly better organized country than Argentina. Remember that it is not an accident that Argentina has gone from the world's fourth richest country to one of the poorer ones in the past 100 years.)
The actual balcony off the suite was of limited utility due to a lack of drainage. There was always a lot of standing water on the balcony.
The ship has a comfortable dining room and a reasonably functional theater where talks can be heard and films can be seen by the entire group. Otherwise the facilities are pretty basic and the ship feels claustrophic after a few days. The gym is small and the ceiling is so low that it was impossible for me to walk on the treadmill without hitting my head (I'm 6' tall).
Personally I would rate the food as being similar in quality to what you would get at a buffet in a suburban Marriott hotel while the service was excellent.
A typical morning or afternoon outing from the Ocean Diamond entails 30 minutes of waiting, 1.5 hours on land, 1.5 hours in a Zodiac, and 0.25 hours waiting to wash boots upon re-boarding. As the IAATO rules prohibit "peeing like a penguin" on land or "peeing like a leopard seal" in the water, you'll need 3.75 hours of bladder capacity to be an Ocean Diamond tourist.
The lower level Quark staff were solicitous of passenger comfort and oftentimes a lot of fun. Vladimir Seliverstov, the Russian who drove Zodiacs and fixed their motors, was a superb photographer and a fun guy to share meals with. Diane Erceg gave interesting talks on Antarctic history in between stints as a friendly Zodiac driver. Shanti Davis shared her marine biology expertise and remained calm after a leopard seal bit a hole in one of our Zodiac's compartments. Yukie Kopp was a lot of fun as well.
The Quark expedition leaders, however, were not as easygoing as the Zodiac drivers, guides, and scientists. David Wood ("Woody") reacted to a request for an extra 2-minute Zodiac run the same way that one would expect the captain of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to receive a suggestion from an enlisted man to stay in port another few days. On our second day on the continent, I watched Anne Inglis (" Annie") ridicule a passenger for not following the correct procedure for getting into the Zodiac from the beach (presumably the passenger was supposed to have become an expert on the preceding day).
Wildlife in Antarctica tends to be fairly approachable, so lenses longer than 300mm (full frame) are not necessary unless you are passionate about capturing seabird portraits. The most challenging aspect of Antarctic photography is the high contrast between dark rock or water and bright snow. Choose a camera whose sensor has been rated high in dynamic range by the folks over at dxomark.com. As of 2013, sensors made by Canon and included in their professional bodies were dramatically inferior to those made by Sony and included in the full range of Sony cameras as well as in Nikon professional bodies. I took a Sony RX100 point and shoot ($600) and a Canon 5D Mark III ($3500) plus assorted L-series lenses ($don't ask!) on my Ocean Diamond trip. Despite mostly being left on "green idiot mode", the RX100 typically produced far better JPEGs than the $3500 Canon, regardless of what exposure was used on the Canon. The long lenses of the Canon were better for wildlife, of course, but I came to rely on the little Sony for scenery and also for its built-in panorama mode. It is possible that if I spent a few months in Photoshop working with the Canon RAWs that I could eventually produce some great JPEGs, but I'm not planning on living to 225 years of age.
As of 2013, probably the ideal camera for Antarctica would be the Nikon D800 with its Sony sensor and a Sony NEX as a backup/point-and-shoot (I am partial to the NEX-6). You'll have a limited opportunity to use a tripod, but a carbon fiber monopod (e.g., Manfrotto 694CX) is useful, especially when augmented by plates from Really Right Stuff.
Remember that once you get on the ship in Ushuaia there is no possibility of ordering a replacement SLR body, even for Amazon Prime customers! So it was very comforting to have my gear stowed safely in a Lowepro DryZone 200 during Zodiac rides and landings.
With a full-frame camera, I would recommend the following lenses: