What’s it like to cruise Antarctica? Photographer reveals what to expect
Viking Octantis set sail for the first time in early 2022 to Antarctica. We spoke to resident photographer Alastair Miller about his time onboard, top travel tips and photography in the Antarctic.
Only about 200 years ago was the Antarctic a little known and unexplored place – but now intrepid cruise passengers can explore the majesty of this mysterious region.
Built specifically to sail in remote areas while still providing stability and relaxation, Viking Octantis is all about inviting guests to explore and learn during their expedition. With a panoramic auditorium, a library, and multiple resident scientists, guests can immerse themselves and learn about their environment.
Based in Paris, Miller is Viking’s award-winning resident photographer, as well as a regular host on Viking. TV. Having worked for the Times and the Sunday Times, he now travels the world, shooting amazing destinations for Viking.
Here Miller discusses his excitement of heading to Antarctica for the first time and his own tips for prospective photographers.
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How does it feel to be travelling on Viking Octantis?
When we set sail from Ushuaia on Viking’s first expedition ship Viking Octantis on her very first expedition voyage there was a great sense of adventure and anticipation amongst all the guests and crew – not to mention an acute awareness that we were following in the footsteps, or I should say wake, of some of history’s most pioneering explorers.
Of course with Viking you’re travelling in complete comfort so the conditions are not remotely similar but you can’t help but think of those who went before us and everything they represent in terms of bravery and human endurance.
Viking’s Chairman, Torstein Hagen, has dreamt of visiting Antarctica since he was a small boy so it is a privilege to be part of such an exciting launch for Viking and to see his vision come to life.
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Viking Octantis has a very familiar look and feel in line with the Scandi chic design of the ocean ships but there are some unique design features including the hangar which is an in-ship marina with a slipway so that guests can embark and disembark the special expedition vessels without worrying about rough seas or inclement weather.
One of my favourite places on board is the auditorium called the Aula where lots of talks take place – it has floor to ceiling windows and 270-degree views so you don’t miss any of the spectacular scenery.
Viking Octantis is much smaller than Viking’s ocean ships with only 378 guests so I would say it’s the perfect size – small enough to visit less explored areas but big enough to handle Drake Passage or any heavy seas.
This is your first time in the Antarctic; how does it feel?
It takes less than 48 hours to cross Drake Passage and, even though the crossing was relatively smooth on our first voyage, I will never forget setting eyes on Antarctica for the first time.
The photographer Herbert Ponting called the Antarctic ‘The Great Alone’ and, as many have said before, this describes it perfectly – nothing prepares you for the desolation even though you’re surrounded by fellow passengers and crew.
You get a real sense of the power of nature from the moment you arrive.
The overwhelming feeling I had was awe. You could tell every single person on the expedition voyage was constantly filled with awe and wonder – from the guests to the polar experts and expeditions leaders to the crew. It is a shared experience unlike any I have had before.
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What is so exciting about taking photos in the Antarctic?
Where do I begin – it’s the light, it’s the contrast, it’s the wildlife, it’s the colours…it’s both the scale and the detail.
It is really humbling to think you’re following in the footsteps of intrepid explorers. A few months ago when I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, one of Viking’s research partners, I learnt about the photographer and cinematographer George Herbert Ponting, the pioneer of modern polar photography who was part of Captain Scott’s 1911 Terra Nova Expedition.
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I became fascinated by his life and work – especially given the quality of his images which give a real sense of the majesty of the place, despite being taken on primitive equipment.
It was the British explorer, Sir David Hempleman-Adams, who pointed out that back then Ponting’s images of a ‘hostile corner of an unknown part of the world would have been as stunning to 20th-century eyes as the first photographs of the surface of the moon were to us’ which helps give some perspective.
What sort of photographs will you be taking on your trip?
We have a film crew on board so we are shooting everything from the staterooms to the restaurants and spa to the wildlife and aerial shots of the ship – Viking Octantis was delivered at Fincantieri's VARD shipyard in Norway at the end of December so it’s the first chance we’ve had to take photographs of the new ship.
I’ve also been out on the zodiacs and kayaks and I’ll be taking photos from the submersible which has revolving seats with nearly 270° spherical windows and undistorted views in all directions.
Whilst I’ve been trying to capture the magnificent scenery and the sheer majesty of the destination, I always search for the unexpected, the small detail in the larger landscape, so my photographs encompass a whole range of perspectives.
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Do you have to use a special camera for Antarctic voyages? If so, what?
I use pretty much the same equipment as I would on other itineraries, two camera bodies, Nikon and Fuji, plus a selection of lenses and filters. But for this voyage to Antarctica, I brought along a 200-500mm zoom lens as I wanted to be able to capture as much of the wildlife as possible.
You spent some time training for this expedition in Norway, how did that help?
I was lucky enough to join Viking’s expedition team, Executive Vice President Karine Hagen, and Liv Arnesen, godmother to Viking Octantis and the first woman to ski solo to the South Pole, when they visited the Finse Mountain Plateau in Norway a few months ago.
The area is the highest place between Oslo and Bergen and it was used as a training ground for most of the renowned polar explorers of the early 20th century including Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton.
Liv knows the area really well as she prepared for her crossing of the Antarctic continent she was ski sailing across the lake. Luckily I was there to take photographs so I was on the sidelines for some of the more extreme training which involved crossing crevasses!
The Finse Terrace on Viking Octantis was named after the area so it was one of the features I was most looking forward to experiencing when I got on board – with its lava-rock ‘fire pits’ and comfortable couches, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy panoramic views of the dramatic surroundings whilst sailing in Antarctica.
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Have you always wanted to go to the Antarctic?
Yes, it has always been top of my wish list. I began my career with a brief stint as a navigator in the Merchant Navy, mainly because I wanted to travel the world, but obviously, Antarctica was never on the itinerary.
I have been fortunate to visit the Arctic several times on Viking’s In Search of the Northern Lights voyage and for photoshoots in destinations Viking will be visiting on its new expedition ships but Antarctica always held a fascination for me.
Is there anything so far on the trip that has surprised you?
I know Antarctica is famed for its wildlife but I didn’t realise how abundant it would be – as well as seeing lots of penguins, birds and seals on the shore excursions, we frequently spotted whales from the ship, as well as groups of penguins swimming past.
The submersible crew even saw a giant Phantom Jellyfish – something that has only been officially seen 110 times in 110 years!
I was also pleased to see first-hand how seriously Viking takes its commitment to visiting the world's most pristine destinations in the most responsible way possible.
From strict bio-security measures to features on the ship such as dynamic positioning which means the ship hovers over the sea bed rather than anchoring, its fuel efficient design, zero emissions waste treatment and quiet ship propulsion to minimise noise pollution this is clearly a huge priority for the company and crew.
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Is it more difficult to take photographs when you’re wearing so many layers?
One of the biggest challenges is replacing batteries – they don’t last long in the extreme cold. You have to constantly swap them and it can be tricky when you’re wearing thick gloves.
What tips, if any, can you give to World of Cruising readers who are going on an expedition cruise?
- Go with an open mind – the itinerary often changes from hour to hour depending on the weather conditions but if you relax into it, it’s the most exciting way to travel.
- There is a well-known saying in Norway “There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” – Viking guests are loaned all the expedition gear they need but underneath I would say layers are the key to success. The warm drying closets in the guest rooms work brilliantly and there is a launderette on board so no need to overpack.
- Don’t worry about Drake Passage – be prepared but don’t let it put you off. It is thought of as a rite of passage to visit Antarctica and I have never heard anyone say that it wasn’t worth it – but it’s not always rough so there’s no point wasting energy worrying about it. Whatever the conditions remember you are perfectly safe – ships cross the passage all the time and the highly skilled Captain and his crew all have extensive experience in the region. Just keep your eye on the horizon!
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- I know our Norwegian colleagues always pack a chocolate bar called ‘Kvikk Lunsj’ for if they need a quick burst of energy when out on shore excursions – it’s traditionally eaten when hiking or skiing and would be the equivalent of Kendall Mint Cake for us in the UK.
- To avoid condensation on your camera when you get back on board after going ashore in the polar regions, my tip is to place your camera in a zip lock bag, seal it and leave it until it gets back up to room temperature. And keep two or three spare camera batteries in an inside pocket when you’re out on shore excursions.
- It can be very easy to spend all your time trying to capture everything you see on camera – but I would urge visitors to put down their camera or phone every once in a while and enjoy the majesty of nature. It’s not every day you find yourself in one of the most remote and most pristine parts of the world – for many of us, it’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience so make sure you take it all in.
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