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|| News Item: Posted 2009-08-13

Sports Shooter Destination: Antarctica- 'Hell yeah you go.'
By Adam Lau

Photo by Adam Lau

Photo by Adam Lau

Crew brace themselves on the bow of the M/Y Steve Irwin as the ship plunges into a massive swell on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009 in freezing Antarctic seas.
Let's get this out of the way first. I lost a shitload of gear.

Not a shitload by professional standards. After all I'm still a student --- read: starving freelancer--- so the equipment pile in my closet hasn't yet reached the epic proportions of say, your average Sports Shooter's.

Still, losing almost everything I'd accumulated up to that point stung. But what would you do snagged a spot on an anti-whaling, South Pole-sailing, eco-pirate ship? To join up as crew for four months? During which your only responsibility is to photograph everything. War in once peaceful waters. Conflict in one of the last remaining, liquid Serengetis of the world?

Hell yeah, you go.

If you're me, you sell all your belongings. Anything remotely valuable. Channel the crackhead. And even if it means you feel under-equipped with your Canon 1D MkII, 30D, and a handful of lenses (no cash for spares), you go.

Break up with the girlfriend, withdraw next semester, pray to the photojournalism gods for luck, and you go.

Halfway across Earth east, and another half south, to Tasmania. To a big, black, badass ship. To a cozy 10' x 10' cabin with two funny-sounding roomies (a Brit and an Aussie). Oh yea, and you get the floor.

Which turns out OK, because you roll less in stormy seas. The forward section of the ship is nicknamed "the "zero-gravity chamber". Aussie in the top bunk gets his nose smashed into the ceiling occasionally. You thank the photojournalism gods for the floor.

Two lenses break the first day. MkII quits halfway in. The insurance-provided 50D is blasted to smithereens by water cannons. You think, I should be more careful. But not too careful. I don't want to miss pictures. You take fewer chances, but the 30D suffers a sticky shutter anyway. A battery charger dies. Card reader fails inexplicably. WTF? You seal up the 30D with duct tape and blow through 120,000+ frames with what you have. And when you arrive home with lighter bags--- just a borrowed 20D and one working lens left --- you console yourself. Say it's OK. Cause it was all worth it.

And it was.

Worth sailing the roaring forties, furious fifties, and screaming sixties. The subpolar swells left you a little gift - fully manual gastronomics. Now you can puke on call. Feel slightly green? Open the hatches and let'er rip. It's better than suffering through queasiness and yakking hours later. Sea legs take a couple weeks to grow.

Worth one three-minute shower every five days. On day 6 you skip your shower ration and go another week. You smell like rusty, salty, sweaty feet. But so does everyone else. When it comes to showering, you decide-less is more. More I smell myself, less I'll smell everyone else. Your nostrils close, you feel better.

Photo by Adam Lau

Photo by Adam Lau

Sea Shepherd crew in an inflatable fast boat, armed with bottles of rotten butter, are doused by sea spray and water cannons from Japanese harpoon ship, the Yushin Maru No. 1.
Until it gets lonely. There's no Internet or access to the outside world. You live inside a freezing, floating TV show, where viewing is one-way. When you get home and friends tell you the economy crashed, you're stunned. Cause you lived in a bubble.

Professor warned about this. "Every time I talk to one of my former students," he'd say, "they all tell me what they miss about school is feedback". Now you'd kill for feedback. For a kindred eye. You agonize over editing, lose objectivity, struggle in-and-out of familiar visual traps. You decide your work is all shit.

Inspiration is hard to come by at sea - 99% is doldrums. Repeated routine. Staring at identical icebergs, seeing the same crew. Should've brought projects to keep yourself busy. (Can only do so much key wording in one day!) But it's $10 buy-ins at the weekly poker game (American or Australian), and after placing third in the ship-wide tournament, you feel pretty good about yourself. You're no richer, but that's 2 skills you've learned on the trip.

Unexpected friendships arise with extremists in the bunch. They're people too. Vegan-animal-rights-anarchists. Trained as a scientist, you agree to disagree. But you see where they're coming from. When the whaling ships appear, you pound each other's fists.

You wonder if it's ethical to be both journalist and activist. Professor said, "Since there are no independent operators in this conflict, it's ok. You're either on this ship, or on the whaler's...or no pictures." Get on a whaling ship next year. You stop worrying because suddenly the whalers are here.

"Launching the boats!" Sea Shepherds scream into your room. Your gear was ready, you packed the night before. You did this every night in case this happened. On wetsuit, on exposure suit, on insulating layers and snacks for the road. Drop over the side into a speedboat, and you're off.

Water is glassy. Feeling in your feet freezes away. Just focus on keeping the hands warm. Hands, hands. You're glad you packed more gloves (8 pairs) than clothes (2 sets). Next time bring a helmet.

They say each hour spent in a bouncing boat is equivalent to downing a few beers. After four hours out, sucking down seawater, you're losing coordination. You're drunk.

Salt sprays, you spray back with the shutter. Ice rips open your lips, revealing a sick smile. Somehow you've achieved enlightenment. You realize for the first time - this is what goddamn photojournalists do. You feel like a professional for the first time. You suck Antarctica into your lungs.

You feel alive.

Water cannon hits you like a ton of bricks. Everything goes quiet. Adrenaline clears the mind. The world runs in slo-mo. Body switches to autopilot, A-B-C. Step A) plant the feet, step B) aim, step C) fire. Don't stand, duck. Don't think, feel.

When the cameras go kaput, you stand in the boat and watch. For the first and only time, you're not peering through a viewfinder. You see everything omnisciently. The towering ships, salty seas, your eco-pirate buddies (yes, they're your buddies now), all dancing a deadly chicken ballet in Southern Ocean swells.

You say...damn.

Photo by Adam Lau

Photo by Adam Lau

Sea Shepherd cook Laura Dakin, right, peers out the M/Y Steve Irwin's galley window as crew member Eric Cheng waits in an inflatable fast boat outside after an failed mission to pursue Japanese harpoon ship.
Things are scarier in retrospect than they were at the time. Like when ships collided, horizon went 20 degrees, and you went skidding across deck, Titanic-style. Or when shrapnel whizzed past and you weren't wearing eye protection. You think, if I'm a professional, I'll plan ahead. I'll have more gear next time. Maybe a surf housing? I'll bring spares.

Gear is gone, but it's OK. It wasn't really Antarctica-it was the Antarctic Ocean. Cold, wet, and salty-the axis of evil. The trifecta. Losing gear is par for the course. Animal Planet team lost a few cameras too, they just budgeted for it.

You're glad you weren't on the Animal Planet team. They were separate from crew, erected barriers they couldn't cross. But as crew, you're accepted. You weave freely between media and fellow whale warriors. You realize Animal Planet isn't there to do journalism, they're making an entertaining TV show. 'Documentary-style' doesn't mean what you thought it did. You work differently - a loner - but relish the opportunity to watch and learn.

You're humbled by the fact they're all paid. You consider video. Their DP loans you that 20D and 10-22 when all your gear is dead. You rethink your position - maybe in the long run, it's better to be on an Animal Planet team.

Time to leave, and you wander companionways endlessly. You touch the steel of the ship. You regret not shooting more faces, think about that unfinished shot list…but realize it's time to pull the plug. At some point, it all has to stop.

Legs wobble on dry land. You get home and spend time with loved ones. You promise to spend more time with them in the future, but it's hard. Sailing the seas was your everyday, and now the everyday is unsettling. Real world is blander, cars extravagant, the rat race is frivolous.

You toss your belongings into the truck and move in. You're fucking solo.

You plan for next season.

(Adam Lau, formerly a marine biologist, is a student at San Francisco State University. You can see his work on his member page: and at his personal website:

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