Skip to main content

Antarctica by iPhone

Text and images by Hugh Powell

Hello from Antarctica! I’ve been here in the deep, deep south for 11 days, 2,000 miles south of New Zealand. I arrived on a C-17 jet at McMurdo Station, at the southern end of the Ross Sea—near where Captain Robert Falcon Scott launched his ill-fated attempt on the South Pole 100 years ago.

We’re at about 78° south latitude and 167°east longitude here. We’re 18 time zones ahead of the East Coast. We have 24-hour daylight—the sun won’t dip below the horizon until the end of February. And for Antarctica this is the heat of summer, with temperatures often around freezing. From what I hear, we’ve been having better weather than much of the East Coast.

I’m down here as part of an oceanographic research voyage. When we got to McMurdo we quickly boarded a 308-foot icebreaker ship and sailed north toward some of the most productive waters on the planet. The scientists on board are studying how ocean currents fuel the blooms of plankton that feed a couple of million penguins and thousands of whales.

Though our main purpose is not to study birds, I did bring my binoculars with me. I’ve been using them with my iPhone camera to get a few photos (see this featured photographer for advice on digiscoping with a cell phone).

We began seeing penguins almost as soon as we left McMurdo Station and began breaking ice toward open water. Emperors stood calmly with their bills in the air, a bit like monocled Victorians, or dropped to their bellies and slid away, steering with their flippers. The little Adélie Penguins are much more numerous here, and we hear their short yelps from the ice floes as we pass. Far out in open water small groups sit like rafts of auks or swim alongside the ship, leaping seamlessly out of the water at speed, like dolphins. We’re too far south here to see any other penguin species.

As fun as it is to take iPhone photos, they can’t really compete in sharpness with a real camera. Fortunately I’m traveling with a professional photographer named Chris Linder. We’ve worked in Antarctica together once before (and he’s been a featured photographer on All About Birds). He’s been kind enough to let me post a few of his bird photos to the blog. They’re coming soon, so stay tuned! And if you’re interested in how scientists study the small end of the food chain, visit our expedition blog.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
is a free resource

Available for everyone,
funded by donors like you

American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library