So, what's it like to travel on a ship to the polar regions? What sort of ship should you go on? Is travelling with Peter Eastway on an Aurora Expeditions ship the thing for you? Or should you go on a 'photographers only' voyage? Recently, a couple of photographers asked this very question and this is a summary of my answer.
The Greg Mortimer ship (and the new Silvia Earle sister ship) takes around 130 passengers, assuming it is sold-out voyage. The ship can take 160 odd passengers, but there are limits for landing of 100 guests plus staff at any location in Antarctica/SG and up in the Arctic generally. So, with 130 passengers, of which 20-30 are kayakers, we can usually get most passengers ashore at the same time.
As a psuedo staff member, sometimes I'd go ashore with the lead party so I could help set up the landing and scope what I wanted to photograph. When the passengers arrived on shore, I'd take the photographers for a walk with me - we didn't have to be herded with the rest of the passengers unless we wanted to. More often than not, the photographers said see you later and walked around the site with one of the other guides and saw me later on board.
If I didn't go with the lead party, I'd arrange for photographers with me to be the last zodiac off the ship (or, if we had more than a zodiac full of photographers, we'd take two zodiacs together). As last zodiac out, we were also last zodiac back, so the same time duration. And with the light down in Antarctica, I've never felt I missed out because of this.
However, sometimes numbers were over 100 wanting to go ashore. What happened last time (the COVID voyage!) was I (and maybe one of the other photography staff) would take a zodiac first. We'd go and shoot the surroundings doing a zodiac cruise and, after an hour or so, we'd then land and walk around. By this time, some of the general passengers had returned, so the numbers limit was observed. We got some amazing photos from the zodiacs that the general passengers never saw - but of course, they may have seen things we didn't see when we landed on shore.
However, usually we'd just land with everyone else, or sometimes everyone would only zodiac cruise - it all depends on the weather and swell, not just the numbers. But there were occasions when I was strongly encouraged to take a zodiac out to control the numbers - and I confess to being really happy to do this. We got some amazing opportunities that the others didn't get, we were a zodiac full of photographers, the crew/driver took us where we wanted to go, no time problems. We still landed and so got the best of both worlds. I loved it!
However, if you want to maximise your time ashore, that's no problem. You are then one of the 100 passengers landing and usually there is some degree of flexibility on where you go. In all the trips, I've never felt restricted in what I did (mind you, being a leader helps as I could go where I wanted to, within the landing site limitations that everyone has to abide by). Of course, on occasions I had to return to the ship earlier than I wanted to, but this was to get to the next location or to avoid incoming weather!
On board, I am required to give general photography lectures etc for all the passengers. For the first couple of days, I might be a little busy showing people how to put their battery in properly, but after that I am left alone because general passengers just aren't that interested in photography.
This means for the photographers who travel with me, there is plenty of time to sit in the library or down in the lounge area with our laptops, working on files and talking photography. I find that most photographers are pretty self-sufficient when they are out on location - it's so amazing out there, who cares about the camera! But I am available if you want to walk around with me, of course! It's the experience first. Then, back on board, processing the files becomes a lot of fun.
I usually find there are another few keen photographers on board, who have booked directly with Aurora. In the past, I have ended up with 10-20 keen photographers to work with and found it very manageable.
So, that's how it works. Would a photo specific voyage be better? The selling points are you're all photographers and you can be focused on photographic destinations. From my perspective, having everyone a photographer could create its own challenges - everyone wanting to be in the front of the line to get the best shot. Mind you, I haven't yet visited a location in Antarctica that wasn't photogenic, so do I need to be on a voyage that claims to go to the best spots?
Also, all the different ships in the polar regions use a booking system so that generally there is only one ship at a location at a time, so the idea of a photo ship being able to go anywhere it likes is true, but whether they can land probably depends on existing bookings! And the weather can have a huge impact so it's really just a matter of being there and taking advantage of what you see. Many of my 'best' photos in my Late Season book were taken from the ship's deck, often when the other passengers were in the bar or eating lunch! Including some photographers!
What about early morning and late evenings? No trouble shooting from the ship, but what about on land? The main issue is staff. If a group of photographers goes out early for a zodiac cruise or landing, it impacts everything else for the ship's roster and crew, so I don't find myself on land early or late in the day very often, unless the whole ship does it. I mean, you can sleep on land overnight (weather depending - and I confess when I had the opportunity I stayed on board because I know what it is like to freeze on the ice!) And given the light down there, it doesn't necessarily matter where you are because shooting from the ship can produce equally good shots. But different, I agree. I would like to be on land for a few early mornings (except sunrise can be 2 am!). And while photographer-centric voyages may claim to be out and about early morning and late in the evening, I've heard differing reports as to how successful this is and how often it actually happens. I also know a couple of expedition leaders who are not complimentary of photographer-based voyages, but that's a different perspective again. As we know from social media, everyone is good at complaining and personally, any trip to the polar regions will be fantastic!!!
After being in the staff room for planning sessions for the day's activities, when I am consulted for the photographers' interests, I can honestly say you go on a voyage and the rest is just luck. Yes, I get to pick and choose to some extent, but even if I didn't plan it, at some stage, there will be amazing opportunities and you just have to be ready for them. There is rarely time to plan a quick landing and even if you could, by the time you have the ship ready, the light/conditions will have changed anyway.
I can't tell you what a photographer-only voyage is like because I haven't been on one, but I have heard good reports from many participants. Then again, I've also heard excellent reports from voyages on ships like the Greg Mortimer.
The one thing we can all agree on is, don't go on a ship with several hundred passengers because, given the 100 people limit, you will definitely spend less time on shore.