Albatrosses in Flight – Crossing the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties

August 24, 2018 ·

Achim Kostrzewa

Our very first trip to Antarctica was during December 1995. Since then Renate, an animal ecologist, geographer and writer and myself, Achim Kostrzewa, animal ecologist, geologist and dedicated nature photographer have completed 27 journeys to Antarctica.

My very last trip (2012/13) to eastern Sub-Antarctica south of New Zealand and Tasmania was the worst of all. We had the most difficult winds and weather ever, and a ship that liked to roll even in the lowest side winds. My main goal was Macquarie Island, which is situated right in the middle of the “Antarctic Polar Front” where the cold Antarctic water body mixes with warmer surface water of the South Pacific Ocean. Because of this, the ocean is very rich in food and therefore home to120,000 King Penguins and famous colonies of 800,000 Royal Penguin pairs. On our way southwards we came along the Snares, Auckland and Campell Islands and on the way back to Dunedin we crossed the Antipodes, Bounty and Chatham Islands. All of these are strongholds of various Albatross species from the big Southern Royal Albatross to the smaller but very abundant Mollymauk species. We have seen many nests on the islands, but most of them were not accessible due to nature conservation. My travel German written report is here:

Swarm intelligence? No, just keeping up the distance to the next crossing neighbour bird made this Albatross fully brake! D700, AF-S 4/300, f/7,1, 1/1.250sec
Swarm intelligence? No, just keeping up the distance to the next crossing neighbour bird made this Albatross fully brake! D700, AF-S 4/300, f/7,1, 1/1.250sec

I already had some experience with the albatross from western Antarctica, while crossing the stormy Drake Passage between Tierra del Fuego and the Western Antarctic Peninsula. With no problems of seasickness, I was out on the different decks of the ship to check for photo opportunities, viewing angles and the best sites to capture whales and seabirds. Every time out on the decks I carried my F4s with an AF 4/300 IF-ED (“screw-drive”) tele-lens. (Since 2007 I changed from the F4s to the digital D300). But here seabirds are scarce. There are no islands to nest besides South Georgia and the Falklands. The most abundant species is the Wandering Albatross with its 12-foot wingspan.

We are cruising along the Bounty Isles – the sea is very rich of food here, so this is an Albatrosses (and photographers) paradise. D700, AF 2,8/80-200
We are cruising along the Bounty Isles – the sea is very rich of food here, so this is an Albatrosses (and photographers) paradise. D700, AF 2,8/80-200

In eastern Antarctica, the situation is totally different. Sailing along these stormy seas of the “roaring forties and furious fifties” gave us great opportunities to catch many different seabird species in flight. You just have to find a site on the ship where you could sit or stand dry and safe even in high winds and waves. I found my place on the Zodiac deck, just four feet above sea level.  This gave us great views of the albatrosses, which used their dynamic flight abilities to follow us without doing one single wing beat while they were watching the surface for food items brought up by our ship’s propellers. I spent many hours there during rain and shine using my Nikon D300 with AF-S 4/300 always ready, covered by a rain gear. And when the weather was fine we gave ornithology lessons. I was switching to the D700 with or without the Nikon 1.4x extender and speed kit giving 8 frames per second (at 14 bit RAW), while the D300 just made 6 fps (at 12 bit RAW).

Photo and ornithology lessons on the stern deck of our little Russian ice breaker. The Albatrosses were following us for hours
Photo and ornithology lessons on the stern deck of our little Russian icebreaker. The Albatrosses were following us for hours

For half of the trip, most people were in their cabins, seasick from the never-ending rolling of our small Russian icebreaker. When the outer decks were closed for safety issues, you just could climb up to the bridge to watch the waves rolling over the bow. Most of the time this was the only place to look out at the furious sea. Steel plates (for security reasons) covered all other bull eyes or windows.

On our way to Macquarie: Force 12 storm on our little but tough Russian ice breaker
On our way to Macquarie: Force 12 storm on our little but tough Russian icebreaker

So you sometimes develop the claustrophobic feeling of sitting in a submarine. Then I found out where the Russian kitchen crew gets a smoke even if the decks were closed! Because I was scientific staff (and quite a nice guy) they never sent me back to my cabin but offered some booze instead. For more than 20 years I never got seasick, but I also never before drank alcohol on such a rolling ship.

Sunny spells during heavy weather sometimes give a good picture, and we had lots of weather during our trip from New Zealand to the Australian Macquarie Island. Two Wandering Albatrosses with a wing span of more than 12 foot give a glimpse of life in this devastating seascape. D700, AF-S 4/300mm, 400ASA, f/4, 1/2,500 sec.
Sunny spells during heavy weather sometimes give a good picture, and we had lots of weather during our trip from New Zealand to the Australian Macquarie Island. Two Wandering Albatrosses with a wingspan of more than 12 foot give a glimpse of life in this devastating seascape. D700, AF-S 4/300mm, 400ASA, f/4, 1/2,500 sec.

Photography is not easy under such conditions. Most of the time you need one hand for safety and the other for the camera. So I had to use my safety harness to strap myself to the ship to get my hands free for shooting. I shot most of my best ‘keepers’ during the two half-days of tailwind with no rolling when the decks were open. We had lots of albatross following us and when the cook discarded the remains of our morning catch (mostly Barracuda and a cod like species) hundreds of birds appeared from out of nowhere. The catch gave a very tasty fish soup. I myself had three bowls as an entree, main course, and dessert. So our Maori chef was very happy with me but the Russian waitress was frowning about my choices.

One fine day the Albatrosses were keen to get some food remains from the kitchen. Northern Buller and Chatham Albatross, feeding. D300, 300mm, 1/2,000sec.
One fine day the Albatrosses were keen to get some food remains from the kitchen. Northern Buller and Chatham Albatross, feeding. D300, 300mm, 1/2,000sec.

You have to be quick with your camera and that is why I use the 4/300. It is lightweight and of very high IQ on both DX and FX format. I have used heavier lenses before from a belt-mounted monopod. But this combination is much slower, the angle of use restricted and of course heavier. With my lightweight 300mm prime, I am able to work for hours with maximum degrees of freedom to shoot in any given direction. And this seemed to be the key to success: You can aim, focus and shoot within a split-second. From my long-lasting experience with BIF – 35 years now – I know that any situation needs never more than 5 captures: the best ones are often number one or two! If you follow the erratic flying of bird for too long, you may loose your composition.

My Nikon camera settings for “BIF” (Birds in Flight), capturing the pure action, were normally the following:

  • Shutter priority
  • My 300 prime is always wide open, also with extender
  • “High” (Auto) – ISO to achieve 1/1,500 sec minimum to freeze all movement of the photographer, the ship, and the animal…
  • VR off (in case of my new AF-S 4/70-200 VR)
  • Follow AF (AF-C with 21 fields)
  • The main AF-field, which I choose manually via my thumb wheel, is normally shifted to the side where I would expect the eye of the bird.
  • Maximum frame rate (the more the better)

Well, composition in BIF isn’t just to keep the bird within the frame. Yes, that is the main problem for beginners. But later on, you should start to plan your composition. The simplest rule is to give more room in the direction of flight. If you can achieve this, start with some seascape composition: try to show the habitat the bird is living in or capture special behavior like hunting or feeding. With the Albatross, starting and landing are also worth some frames.

Easy: White Capped Albatross passing by. D700, 420mm, 1/2,500 sec.
Easy: White Capped Albatross passing by. D700, 420mm, 1/2,500 sec.
Habitat: Salvins Albatross in front of its nesting island. D300, 300mm, f/5,6, 1/8,000sec.
Habitat: Salvins Albatross in front of its nesting island. D300, 300mm, f/5,6, 1/8,000sec.

If the birds come quite close, you have to decide change the prime lens for the pro zoom (which is always attached to my second body) or try some close ups in flight. The latter seemed more challenging to me, so I had to cut the wings and compose after the rule of the thirds and try some diagonal lines to strengthen the dynamic. And the very best advice to get the right exposure settings for the best image quality came from Michael Reichmann with his article “expose to the right” from 2003, today there is an update. In the old slide film days, I used a self-adapted form of the “zone-system” to measure my exposures by external (Gossen Lunasix) or camera internal spotmeter (F4, F801s).

More than full frame: Northern Buller Albatross passing. If you have no zoom, you have to compose! D300, 300mm, 1/5,000sec.
More than full frame: Northern Buller Albatross passing. If you have no zoom, you have to compose! D300, 300mm, 1/5,000sec.
Campell Mollymauk. D300, 300mm, f/5, 1/8,000sec.
Campell Mollymauk. D300, 300mm, f/5, 1/8,000sec.
Chatham Albatross, surfing during landing. D300, 300mm, 1/1,600sec.
Chatham Albatross, surfing during landing. D300, 300mm, 1/1,600sec.
Northern Buller Albatross starting. D700, 300mm, 1/1,000sec.
Northern Buller Albatross starting. D700, 300mm, 1/1,000sec.

For classifying the species down to the interesting level of subspecies, you need a keen ornithologist aboard or a specialized bird book on albatrosses to sort things out (at home on your big monitor), because the different “mollymauk” species look very similar. I made about 1,000 pics of flying albatrosses alone. Roughly 5% of those I use for publications. But more than 70% of all were sharp enough. This is a great development compared to my first 10 years of BIF: maybe 5% were good enough according to former standards and 1% I really liked. 95% for the bin…

Royal Albatross on the nest (Campell Island) within the famous “megaherb” vegetation of Bulbinella plants. We made an half day excursion to the breeding colony. I was flat on my belly behind my tripod in approx. 10 meters distance. She was quite tame and not very much interested in me. D300, 300mm, f /6,3, 1/800sec.
Royal Albatross on the nest (Campell Island) within the famous “megaherb” vegetation of Bulbinella plants. We made an half day excursion to the breeding colony. I was flat on my belly behind my tripod in approx. 10 meters distance. She was quite tame and not very much interested in me. D300, 300mm, f /6,3, 1/800sec.
After having stowed everything in my backpack to walk back 3 miles to the ship, a second pair visited the one which I have watched for more than one hour. I was already late, so I had to use my point and shoot Lumix to capture some frames. 400mm equiv. f/4, 1/320sec. OIS on
After having stowed everything in my backpack to walk back 3 miles to the ship, a second pair visited the one which I have watched for more than one hour. I was already late, so I had to use my point and shoot Lumix to capture some frames. 400mm equiv. f/4, 1/320sec. OIS on

I started my passion for BIF in 1980 while visiting the famous Scottish Bass Rock, the home of the Atlantic Gannet. I was then working on my MSc in biology/bird ecology. I used a motorized Nikon FM and a Novoflex 400mm so-called “fast shot” or “rapid focus” lens. Later on I switched to a Nikon “internal focus” (=IF) AIS 5,6/400 IF-ED, which could be focused after some practicing as quick as the Novoflex but with much better IQ due to the ED glass, and than to autofocus: the F4s with the old “screw-drive” AF 4/300 IF ED. But during the “old” film days you have to have sunshine with your 50-200 ASA slide film and there were not many keepers. In 2001 I sold all my heavy 2,8/300, 3,5/400 and 5,6/600mm lenses and replaced them by the new AF-S 4/300 D and the TC 14e Mark II extender, to have a professional quality but lightweight travel tele-lens. Together with the D300 (in 2007) and D700 (in Jan. 2010), this is a versatile combination, which gives enough quality to produce nice coffee table books.  See my German written photo blog on BIF .

The best photo sites to capture seabirds in flight are often close to the stern of the ship, because there you are just some feet above the water level, which gives nice viewing angles. Under my Parka I am carrying a life-belt, which is attached with two short ropes to the ship. So I have my both hands free for photography.
The best photo sites to capture seabirds in flight are often close to the stern of the ship because there you are just some feet above the water level, which gives nice viewing angles. Under my Parka I am carrying a life-belt, which is attached with two short ropes to the ship. So I have my both hands free for photography.

Keep Your Eye Out for the Luminous-Landscape 2020 Antarctica Trip Coming Soon


Article and all images are copyright of Achim Kostrzewa. All rights reserved, no use, reproduction or duplication is allowed without written permission. 

Achim Kostrzewa, biologist (MSc), animal ecologist (PhD), geologist (BSc) and dedicated nature photographer.  Since December of 1995, my wife Renate and I completed 27 journeys to Antarctica. During summer time we have done quite the same amount of trips to the Arctic like Greenland, Svalbard or Frans-Joseph-Land.

We run our own home page for more than 11 years now all in German and have published 20 books with German publishers and numerous articles. Achim has his own photo blog  started in 2012.


Achim Kostrzewa
August 2018

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

Achim Kostrzewa

Achim Kostrzewa, biologist (MSc), animal ecologist (PhD), geologist (BSc) and dedicated nature photographer. Since December of 1995, my wife Renate and I completed 27 journeys to Antarctica. During summer time we have done quite the same amount of trips to the Arctic like Greenland, Svalbard or Frans-Joseph-Land. We run our own home page for more than 11 years now (all in German: www.antarktis-arktis.de ) and have published 20 books with German publishers and numerous articles. Achim has his own photo blog (http://www.antarktis-arktis.de/PhotoBlog.htm) started in 2012.

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