Over AntArcticA With SigmA
You usuallY have to set aside plentY of time and dress for the conditions, but thanks to sigma lenses, editor Paul Burrows recentlY experienced antarctica in a daY and from the comfort of a boeing 747.
At precisely 8.19 Am on
Sunday 5 February 2017, Qantas Boeing 747-438ER, VH-OEE, lifted off from Sydney Airport’s Runway 34L and headed south. Twelve hours and 49 minutes later it would return, landing on the same runway after taking its passengers on the trip of a lifetime.
A few hours before the departure, you could have been forgiven for being a bit perplexed when reading the departures board in Qantas’s domestic terminal, because the destination for flight QF2908 was listed as Sydney. And you don’t often see a 747 parked on a domestic terminal departure gate, dwarfing all the regular 737s and 717s sitting around it. In fact, VH-OEE was operating a very special flight which would remain airborne from the moment it left Sydney until it returned… the suffix ‘ER’ stands for ‘Extended Range’ which is something you definitely need when heading to Antarctica and back in a day. The Qantas 747 – with its specially-trained flight crew – has been chartered by Antarctica Flights which has been running these very special trips for 22 years. They’re only possible during the summer season – for obvious reasons – and this season there were only four; one from Perth, one from Sydney and two from Melbourne. Not surprisingly then, seats are eagerly sought after… well, it’s not often that you can cheerily say, “See you later, I’m off to Antarctica for the day!”
Australia is the only country from which you can take a sightseeing flight over the frozen south and, consequently, Qantas is the only international airline which flies to all of the world’s six continents.
My seat on flight QF2908 came courtesy of the Australian distributor of Sigma lenses, C.R. Kennedy & Company. At last year’s Photokina, Kennedy was named Best Distributor globally by Sigma, having achieved the highest market share – covering both Australia and New Zealand – for Sigma lenses anywhere in the world. This was achieved through a highly successful campaign promoting sports lenses and based around the 2016 Australian F1 Grand Prix, but the company hasn’t been sitting on its laurels since then and the Antarctica flight was part of a new sales campaign. Consumers had a chance to win the trip and the sales staff of Australia’s leading camera retailers could also book themselves a spot by achieving certain sales targets. The flight alone would be a pretty good incentive, but C.R. Kennedy & Co. doesn’t do anything by halves so it wasn’t any old seat that was being offered here, but one in the comfort of business class complete with the full Qantas service.
Does it get any better than this? Well, how about also having a mouth-watering selection of Sigma lenses to try out during the flight? Yes, it’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it and I was happy to give up my Sunday to bring you this special report… well, I was only going to wash the car.
After VH-OEE has pushed back from the gate, you know you’re on something a bit different to a normal flight when the captain pipes all the flight deck’s communications with the control tower – and then departures – through the entertainment system. It’s a long taxi to the end of 34L, but there isn’t a lot of traffic and, after a very short hold, OEE lines up, receives take-off clearance and commences its very special 10,500-kilometre round trip.
At check-in – which happens at the gate rather than at the usual desks – we were given two boarding passes each with a different seat number. At the halfway point of the flight, there’s a changeover and everybody moves to the seats designated on their ‘To Sydney’ boarding passes. The idea here is that everybody gets some time in the ‘good seats’, but in business class, they’re really all good seats because there’s so much space in the cabin and, from anywhere, you can see out of numerous windows. Nevertheless, I’m in 7B outbound, swapping to 7A which is a window seat, although we’re encouraged to share… something else that wouldn’t happen on a normal flight. Moving around the cabin is also encouraged not just to optimise your viewing, but because over the Southern Ocean and Antarctica itself, there’s no risk of turbulence.
You Want Ice With That?
Roughly three hours out of Sydney white specks start appearing in the ocean… icebergs. The captain patches into Casey Station for a weather report – which promises largely clear skies – and a chat with one of the scientists working in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
Not long after we pass directly over Macquarie Island and there’s much excitement because it’s actually visible and not shrouded in cloud which is apparently usually the case. Depending on the weather conditions, the flight crew can choose from 19 possible routes, mainly to avoid any cloud cover. Daylight isn’t an issue at this time of year in Antarctica… there’s 24 hours of it!
The icebergs are increasing in number and size, although from the cruising altitude it’s quite hard to get a sense of scale. Each cabin is assigned an expert commentator – often a scientist or even an explorer – and one of the entertainment system’s channels is dedicated to showing Antarcticarelated documentaries, but helpful thought these educational elements undoubtedly are, nothing quite prepares you for Being There.
The next milestone is crossing the Antarctic Circle and then… suddenly… there it is; a vast empty, empty whiteness. It is, quite simply, breath-takingly breath-taking. For the record, Antarctica is 13.84 million square kilometres in area, twice the size of Australia… and about 99.5 percent of it is covered in ice.
The aircraft has descended to around 3000 metres so every window is now full of shimmering whiteness. There’s a discernible coastline and the surrounding ocean is a mottled grey-and-white pattern of ice floes and refreezing patches of sea water. It’s only early February, but already the big freeze is starting and soon huge expanses of ocean will be frozen solidly white, trapping the bigger icebergs which were previously floating free. Even at this much lower altitude it’s still hard to get a sense of scale, except to realise that everything is very much bigger than it looks. An almost perfectly square and flat-topped iceberg looks to be about the size of a postage stamp, but it’s actually 30 metres in height with its surface area equivalent to around 35 football fields.
“Welcome to Antarctica,” says our guide. “And, by the way, welcome to New Zealand.”
We’re flying over NZ’s Ross Dependency and the aircraft begins to fly a loop around the impressive Cape Adare so that passengers on both sides can get a good view. Time to break out the Sigma lenses. I bag a 120300mm f2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM telezoom which is one of Sigma’s Sports series lenses and just about perfect for aerial photography from these heights. Over land, the Qantas 747 can descend further to below 1000 metres and so you really can start to pick out more details such as crevasses – which can be kilometres deep – and wind-driven patterns in the snow.
The route of this season’s Antarctica Flights has been selected to commemorate the last of the ‘Heroic Age’ expeditions… the Ross Sea Party which was part
“Does it get any better than this? Well, hoW about also having a mouthWatering selection of sigma lenses to try out During the flight?”
of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The ten-man Ross Sea Party – which included four Australians – arrived on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound on 17 January 1915 after leaving Hobart on Christmas Eve 1914. The party was tasked with laying supply depots for Shackleton’s expedition which planned to make the first overland crossing of the Antarctic continent. The route from the Ross Sea to the Weddell Sea – via the South Pole – represented 2900 kilometres of hard trekking.
Things did not go well. During a fierce blizzard on 6 May 1915, the sea ice broke away from shore, taking with it the party’s ship Aurora which was carried 1100 kilometres north and subsequently became trapped in sea ice. It eventually made it to New Zealand in April 1916, but the Ross Sea Party members were left stranded for two winters and without a lot of the equipment or food that they’d need to survive. Fortuitously, the supplies and food left behind by Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition were located and, remarkably, the depot laying program was commenced in September 1915 and completed by mid-March in 1916. Three of the group died – one from the disease scurvy and two who vanished in a blizzard – but on 10 January 1917, the Aurora returned to pick up the remaining seven. All four of the Australians survived.
In the comfort of Qantas’s business class, it might seem hard to appreciate what these men went through, but funnily enough as the flight proceeds and you begin to realise just how inhospitable it is down there, you really do start to marvel at their endeavours. Even today with modern equipment and communications, this is a place that punishes mistakes or even simple carelessness with fatal consequences.
The broken sea ice gives way to a solid mass of whiteness as we fly further south and it’s hard to see where the sea ends and the coastline begins. Small islands are completely surrounded by thick ice. These ice shelves can be up to 60 metres above sea level, but there are hundreds of meters extending underwater. The biggest of them – the Ross Ice Shelf which is much further south again – covers around 472,000 square kilometre so it’s roughly the same size as Canada’s Yukon territory.
Eventually we turn north – which is pretty well the only direction from here – and fly over Victoria Land which is still part of New Zealand’s slice of Antarctica – the continent is divided up pretty much like a cheese round with all points ending at the South Pole.
The snow and ice is occasionally punctuated by mountain peaks and the valleys are filled with glaciers. The Antarctica ice sheet has an average thickness of 1800 metres, but can be up to 4800 metres… that’s nearly five kilometres deep. Here you’re not only struck by the vastness, but also by the emptiness. Even flying over the remoter parts of Australia you’re likely to see the odd track, mustering yard or water-pumping windmill, but there’s absolutely nothing here… because, more than likely, no humans have even been here. It’s the last truly pristine environment on the planet.
I try out Sigma’s 150-600mm f5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM – another Sport line lens – which is great for pulling in a distant peak or isolating details such as patterns made by crevasses. Image stabilisation comes into its own in this situation, enabling safe hand-held shooting even at 600mm although, of course, there’s no shortage of light. With so much reflection, the camera metering will want to underexpose. I like shooting with shutter-priority auto exposure control for aerial photography as depth-of-field is less of a concern – especially at these heights – and using faster speeds is desirable for dealing with movement and vibrations. It may seem counterintuitive, but dialling in some plus exposure compensation helps avoid massive underexposure while still ensuring tonality
“The AnTArcTicA ice sheeT hAs An AverAge Thickness of 1800 meTres, buT cAn be up To 4800 meTres… ThAT’s neArly five kilomeTres deep.”
“there’s absolutely nothing here… because, more than likely, no humans have even been here.”
is maintained in the brighter highlights. Inevitably, some postcamera exposure tweaking will be needed in Photoshop –using either Levels or Curves – but it’s a good objective to get as close as possible in-camera, especially when shooting JPEGs. I found +0.7 EV worked well most of the shots, dialling up to +1.0 EV when the frame was virtually entirely filled with whiteness. The flight crosses into George V Land which is part of the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) and again reaches the coast which is hugged by ice shelves or punctuated by the chunky outflows of glaciers. As we fly roughly north-west, the viewing conditions are absolutely superb with only an occasional smattering of light cloud and, not surprisingly, nobody objects when the captain announces we’re going to stay a little longer. Time then to try out Sigma’s much-acclaimed 50mm f1.4 DG HSM prime lens which has been likened in terms of its optical performance to Zeiss’s best. It is indeed a beautifully-made lens – one of the brilliant f1.4-speed Art line models – and stunningly sharp which is what you want when shooting highly-detailed aerials.
Before too long though, the Qantas 747 turns north again and the jagged Antarctica coast recedes behind us. Around five hours has slipped by in what seems like just a few minutes and as the aircraft climbs to cruising altitude, it’s hard not to think it’s all been a dream. Sitting back and checking the images in the camera’s monitor screen, proves that it was indeed a very real experience… and undoubtedly one that will never be forgotten. Thanks to C.R. Kennedy & Company Pty Ltd. The next season of Antarctica Flights begins on 26 November 2017 from Sydney, with flights from Melbourne on 31 December 2017 and 11 February 2018. For more information and bookings visit www.antarcticaflights.com.au
images taken with canon eos 6d with sigma 120-300mm f2.8 ex dg os apo hsm sport, sigma 150-600mm f5.0-6.3 dg os hsm sport, sigma 50mm f1.4 dg hsm art and sigma 12-24mm f4.0 dg hsm art.