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!”

Fly­ing South

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.

Heroic Feats

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.

White Light

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.

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