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  • Writer's picturesuzannefrey

Fiery Free Tips for Frigid Field Expeditions: Scuba Diving & Photography in Antarctica

Updated: Apr 21



So you've been diving "everywhere," now what? Well, given that EVERY dive site will be different each time you dive it, I lament your checkbox mindset, but I applaud your adventurous spirit to see, do, and try something new. And few destinations will offer such a starkly different diving experience than Antarctica.

Any diver headed for Antarctica should not be new to the sport nor cold water and dry suits. So what follows here is intended to fill in for the specific/niche things I wish I’d have known before my trip; it is not exhaustive re: all the equipment and training you’ll need. I also want to thank folks like Faith Ortins, Becky Kagan Schott, Sara Jenner, and Chad Everson who also provided the experiences and guidance that informed this blog.


Have you been diving in Antarctica? Anything else to recommend? Please reach out to me with your advice and I’ll credit you for anything I end up adding to the blog. 


Lastly, I include some links to products. I’ve not been paid to promote anything; rather, these are simply pieces of equipment I’ve used and can recommend. 


Travel To & From Disembarkation 

  1. Build a buffer into your trip at the port of disembarkation in case your luggage is delayed. This is a best practice no matter what dive trip you’re taking anywhere, but in this case, you’re REALLY screwed if your equipment doesn’t show up when you need it to.  No matter if you’re leaving from Argentina, Chile, South Africa, or New Zealand, your departure point will be fascinating, beautiful, and offer plenty to do and see for a few days. 

  2. Test Your Dive Equipment One Last Time “Locally:” Many departure ports, like Ushuaia, offer local dive opportunities (and dive shops) so that you can give everything one last check / purchase any last minute critical items before heading to sea. Thinking that I didn’t want to pack/re-pack/get everything wet for just 2 dives in Ushuaia, I didn’t take advantage of this, and I really wish I would have. It is WORTH IT!


Luggage 

  1. Bag Weight & Count: Divers don’t travel lightly under normal circumstances. We’re used to queuing in long and/or slow lines to pay baggage overage fees in some of the most remote airports in the world. That said, traveling to Antarctica for some of  the coldest of cold water diving demands a whole new strategy for packing both your checked and carry-on luggage. 

  2. Plan to bring more bags than you likely have for any other dive trip.

  3. Plan to keep each checked bag lighter than you might on other trips. The airlines servicing the parts of the world from which boat trips to Antarctica depart are very rigid.  

  4. Keep your checked luggage at no more than 50 lbs / 23 KG / bag. 

  5. No joke: one of my bags was 24 KG and I had to reallocate equipment so that no bag was over 23 KG.

  6. Extra baggage/extra weight costs were extremely modest in Argentina - I was traveling with a total of about 350 lbs of luggage spread across 8 bags (see below: I also brought too much). The most I paid was $67 USD (total) for all of that.

  7. I transited via Buenos Aires and spent one night there before flying to Ushuaia. As a result, I had to exit the airport.. The inspectors in Argentina, as with many other countries in this world, will likely notice that you’re traveling with some pretty expensive equipment. I was grilled, in detail, about the cost of my underwater photography equipment on arrival and kept waiting for an extra 30 minutes while the inspectors debated whether/not I was going to be allowed into the country. I encourage you to do as I do - buy lots of used equipment and explain that to the authorities. 

  8. Bring a handheld luggage scale so that you can re-check your packing going home; this also comes in handy for weighing your weights on the boat in the case that the tour operator’s weights are not marked.

  9. Pay the extra to upgrade on domestic flights (if you can) and take care with carry-ons.  Upgrading for domestic flights is a general best practice for any dive trip;  often “business” or “premium” on domestic flights is a few hundred bucks more.  Paying this not only (usually) gets you extra luggage allowances, but (normally) it also grants you more overhead space and more flexible flight attendants monitoring what you bring aboard. I got special attention and “pre-approval” for my carry-ons when I checked-in in Buenos Aires.  But you can also not make your carry-ons super obvious when checking-in and just be ready to explain that you’re an underwater photographer and bring documentation (like the instructions) for any special big batteries you might have with you. 


Your Dive Equipment

  • Triple-check your regulator setup; send a picture of what you plan to bring to the trip organizer.   I brought all of the instructions to my local dive shop (which is in a “cold water” California location) and I still arrived w/the wrong setup. Here's a picture of what a 2-first-stage setup looks like:


  • Your regulator’s resiliency to cold climes is crucial. Regulator free-flows kill your opportunity to dive on any given day and chances are you aren’t going to have a ton of dive opportunities no matter what operator you choose. Bring a backup first and second stage and pick a very good cold water regulator. 

  • Don’t forget it’s DIN: If you normally dive yoke, be sure to bring a DIN config andor adaptors.

  • You will want heated undergarments - I came w/just a heated vest and I wish I’d have invested in at least heated gloves if not a fully-heated and insulated undergarment.

  • Bring two 11mm hoods; it’s nice to have a dry one at any given time.

  • A lip shield is such a game-changer - it’s $5 and covers your lips and really helps to keep you warm. 


Choosing Which Lenses to Bring

Chances are you’re going to want to take pictures both underwater and topside. In fact, the everyday-normal topside photography ops in Antarctica (IMO) beat MOST of what you’re likely to see underwater. This of course adds some challenges to decision making around lenses. 


UNDERWATER 

BRING: 

  1. Wide-angle: Bring the largest dome you can travel with and a good fisheye lens. The opportunities for iceberg split shots are tremendous. And, of course, if you do encounter a leopard seal or whale, you don’t want to miss it!

  2. Macro: This was a surprise to most of us, but most of the diving (short of those stunning iceberg split shots - and rare large animal sightings) is really macro.  60mm or 105mm will both work. 

  3. GoPro: IMO, unless you're filming for NatGeo, this is the only video equipment you need for the trip. It’s small, easy to take into the water, and you’ll still get great footage if you see a large creature.  I keep one attached to my underwater rig, but others just kept a spare GoPro in their dry suit pocket.


DEBATABLE:

  1. Pro video setup (lights, monitor, etc.): IMO, we saw very little that was worth specialized video equipment, but that’s not to say you will have the same experience.  One great encounter with a leopard seal or fin whale and you could regret not having this. That said, across 10 full days in Antarctica proper, we had one sighting of a leopard seal and all of our whale sightings were from the zodiacs.  Creatures were not as prevalent as my imagination thought they were. If your specialty is videography, then by all means bring it, but I, personally, wouldn’t have wanted the extra weight.  

  2. Nauticam WACP: This is a specialized Nauticam port that’s my normal go-to setup for any dive when I might want the flexibility for either a wider shot or a larger macro shot. That said, this sucker is HEAVY and the dome is delicate. It was completely not worth the weight in travel to bring. 

  3. Extra strobe: Most of my shots were done with natural light and my best shots were taken while snorkeling, not diving. I definitely didn’t need backup strobes. 


TOPSIDE

BRING:

  1. A separate topside camera: Most underwater photographers I know have two of the same base camera bodies. This is good for redundancy as well as just keeping it simple and not having to break down / set up camera configs constantly.

  2. A good, non-prime, telephoto:  My go-to for wildlife photography was a 180-400mm. It was perfect for what I needed whether close-ups of penguins or birds in flight from the ship. Any good lens that offers ranges between 100/200-400 will be perfect. 

  3. A good wide-angle lens OR your phone: Switching lenses on land is a pain in the ass for so many reasons, but especially when there are restrictions on placing any bags on the ground. It is so much easier just to carry your telephoto setup on land and whip out your phone when you want a good landscape or wide shot.  Again, this depends on how good your phone camera is, of course.  I brought a 20mm prime for landscape and never used it.    

  4. A tripod or a monopod: This depends on the latest rules and regulations for land-based excursions. We were allowed to bring tripods and I’m forever grateful I brought one.  If you bring a monopod, you’ll have both a “hiking pole” which will prove invaluable on some of the trickier land-based treks, and you’ll have some flexibility to slide it into your boot for stability on the land in case you’re not allowed to touch the ground w/it.  

  5. GoPro on a selfie-stick: You’ll want this in the zodiacs just in case you pass a whale or other large creature.  A GoPro wide-angle dome is a great value add, too.  Keeping this in your dry backpack just ensures you’re ready when the wildlife is. 


DEBATABLE:

  1. Any prime lens: I also brought a 600mm prime lens and barely used it. First, it was too heavy to haul onto land (and it would have cut my shots unnecessarily close). Secondly, it really added to the complexity of packing and managing luggage weight. Thirdly, the risks of transporting this special lens just weren’t worth it. I also brought other primes for landscape/portraiture and didn’t use them. 


Other Equipment

Use the boots provided by your operator or bring your own?

  • I used the “muck boots” provided by the boat and I really wish I’d have brought at least YakTrax, if not my own boots + YakTrax.  

  • While the boat insisted that their boots were completely perfect for the type of trekking we were doing, I would have preferred much more tread and grip.  Much of the land-based outings require solid footing on icy/snowy/rocky/slippery/wet surfaces and some excursions require some significant up and downhill hikes. 

Ensure you have your laptop upon boarding the boat for disembarkation

  • And, as always, ensure all of your required software for photo editing, etc. is updated. Two people (myself included) did not have their computer on the boat and while this raised some suspicions around the security of luggage transport, the best thing you can do is just to board the boat with enough time to ensure you can triple-check all of your vital equipment.  [Note: our hotel in Ushuaia, The Wyndham, did find my computer and they kept it secure until I returned to port.]

Bring a collapsible/travel snorkel to keep in your drysuit pocket.

  • This is great as you’ll likely snorkel quite a bit as well and/or snorkel at the end of the dive to see more of the surface level action w/wildlife like the penguins.  I personally really like this one from Oceanic.

Bring a truly waterproof jacket, hat, and gloves for the outdoors. 

  • Most Antarctic expeditions these days will provide you with a very good “souvenir” expedition jacket that’s yours to keep. Just check that the jacket is actually waterproof before bringing it as your sole jacket for the trip.  You will be eternally grateful for a waterproof jacket and it won’t add much weight to your luggage. Many years ago, I spent the extra money for this jacket from Arc’Teryx for a trip to the Arctic Circle – and it has been worth every penny.  I also swear by this (almost equally pricey, but totally worth it)  Arc’Teryx windbreaker.  Sealskinz makes great waterproof hats and there are tons of great waterproof gloves out there to choose from. 


Picking Your Trip & Tour Operator

  • Know what you’re getting yourself into: diving in Antarctica is unique, special, and hard work.  I am not aware of any operator in Antarctica that offers what I’d call “concierge” diving. This is DIY diving - meaning you’re going to be setting up, moving, lifting, breaking down, etc. ALL of your own gear at all times - and don’t forget that this is dry suit diving - so that means there’s a lot more weight to move.  The most “setup” assistance that you’re going to get is an air-fill.  If this isn’t for you, IMO you shouldn’t go. 

  • The dive guides work their asses off in other ways here - lifting equipment and/or you out of the water (see below) - working in subzero temps - navigating very tricky and treacherous sites and conditions. Give them a HUGE break for this.

  • Exiting the water post-dive can be very challenging. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, there were no ladders on our zodiacs.  So we shed all of our equipment in the water (fun to do in dry gloves!) and helped to lift it up to the boat.  And then you must hoist yourself into the zodiac. The guides are there to help you, but this is not (for most of us) a glamorous experience.  If I return, I’ll do more core and leg strengthening in advance to help w/this. 

  • Pick an operator affiliated with IAATO. The overall governance of Antarctica is an interesting study in international relations. The governance of tourism, in particular, is vital to the protection of this very special and pristine part of our Earth.  As more and more people venture to this continent (140K last year), preserving what is there is paramount.  IAATO members adhere to the strictest tourism requirements and you can travel knowing they are obeying the rules while taking good care of you, too. 

    • There are opportunities to go on smaller craft and have more flexibility, but, despite the larger crowd on these boats (and trust me, I loathe the concept of taking a "cruise"),  I’d strongly suggest your first experience is with a very, very experienced IAATO operator.



Your Safety

  • Diving around icebergs is no joke. From the rapid buoyancy changes you’ll experience around melting freshwater to the risk of iceberg collapses / caves, you must take care at all times. Your tour operator should be extremely experienced at knowing how to determine if an area is safe for diving. At a bare minimum, any big icebergs near your dive site should be grounded. 

  • I had more failed dives on this trip than I’ve had in my entire life; other divers had challenges, too. And while that’s not ideal, it’s also ok and FAR better to be safe than ambitious in this case.

  • You’ll be diving in very cold water with a lot of equipment and many points of failure. If this is your first time “polar” diving, cut yourself some slack.  If something doesn’t feel right, end the dive. Dive with – and be – a patient buddy.


In Summary


Antarctica is stunningly beautiful, extremely rugged, and unlike anywhere else on our earth. Diving there is an exceptional privilege afforded to very few. But no matter how much “cold water” and “dry suit” diving you’ve done, be sure you’ve adequately prepared before tackling this adventure. I’m grateful to have done some alpine lake diving and to have spent the time on additional dry suit dives before this trip.  All of this said, the diving was not the highlight of my Antarctic experience. There wasn’t a ton to see underwater and most of the action was at the surface (or purely topside).  So don’t skip the topside experiences and don’t overdo the diving.


I learned a TON of things on this trip that I wish I’d have known in advance, hence this blog. I hope you find this helpful - and, as always, if you have something to add, reach out to me with your tips and feedback! 


Camera / Lens Summary


  1. Two camera bodies (one for underwater, one for topside)

  2. U/water

    1. Macro port and lens 

    2. Wide-angle port/dome and fisheye lens

    3. GoPro in your pocket or on your rig

  3. Topside

    1. 100-400mm telephoto

    2. Phone OR a wide-angle lens for landscape (28-70mm will do just fine)

    3. GoPro + “selfie stick” (wide-angle dome is a value-add)

    4. Tripod or monopod (I used this tripod and it was great handling the weight of my telephoto lens). 




Special Equipment Summary


  1. Handheld luggage scale

  2. Yaktrax or equivalent

  3. Hiking poles (and/or a monopod)

  4. Monopod or Tripod

  5. Backup regulator (first and second stage)

  6. DIN config on primary regulator setup

  7. Truly waterproof jacket, hat, and gloves

  8. Waterproof boots with traction (esp. if you don’t have Yaktrax) wide enough to slide your monopod down inside along your leg in case you’re limited on what you can put directly on the ground

  9. Heated undergarments

  10. Two 11mm hoods

  11. A “dry bag” backpack

  12. A collapsible snorkel



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