Archives For Russia

Exploring the Kamchatka coast

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I just returned from exploring the rugged coastlines of Chukotka and Kamchatka to photograph native villages, wildlife and the region’s landscapes in this far outpost of the former Soviet Union. Based on board an expedition ship, life is easy, but each day, trips ashore meant transferring into a zodiac and braving the turbulent oceans, relentless salt spray and waves crashing over the bow. This is followed by a ‘wet landing’ on a beach, dodging the surf and attempting to get onto dry land as soon as possible.

On shore, we then faced the uncertain weather conditions that the wilds of Siberia would send our way. There to take photographs, it meant keeping camera equipment safe in these challenging conditions, one mistake could mean it is swamped by salt water and ruined. I watched this very thing happen a year ago while making a landing at Gold Harbor in South Georgia. It is a truly spectacular wildlife location as the beach is home to hundreds of thousands of king penguins. Eager to get a shot, a fellow traveler has his new digital camera around his neck and ready to shoot as we approached the beach. Six foot swells pounded the landing site and as the zodiac hit the beach, it was pushed sideways by the powerful swell and a wave dumped right on top of us. In an instant, $6000 of camera equipment was lost and to make matters worse, the photographer no longer had his camera to use and we still had two weeks to go, visiting some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife locations on the planet. This must have been heart-breaking.

 

 

D24wXeds_000140Over the years of doing this kind of expedition D24wXeds_000139everywhere from the heat of the Kimberley coast in Australia, Antarctica and now the Russian coast of the Bering Sea, I have tried many different combinations of cases, dry bags and packs. The pile of packs in my office closet tells the story of never finding quite the right solution. Then on a recent trip to start shooting a story on the water crisis in the Owens of Valley of California, I decided to take a look in an outdoor equipment shop in the town of Bishop. A pack immediately caught my eye. Light weight, waterproof and made of a very durable material it looked ideal for my ship borne adventures. Produced by Hyperlite Mountain Gear, I researched the company and to my surprise found out that is based in my home state of Maine. Its great to see such a well made product that is made locally. Their innovative product line is ideal for everyone from hikers wanting to keep the weight of their packs to a minimum, to adventure sports fans that play around the water as the roll top closures make the bags waterproof.

During my trip to the Russian Far East, we visited villages like Tymlat and Lorino where I shot a portraits of the villagers, we also hiked in the mountains of Kamchatka experiencing everything from sun to torrential rain. My new Hyperlite 2400 accompanied me on all these adventures, providing a ideal way to get my camera gear ashore safely, as well as giving quick access through the roll top when I needed to quickly change lenses or a battery. Although the model I have is designed for ice climbing, the outside pockets and straps also provided an ideal place to keep a can of bear spray handy, essential as we passed dozens of brown bears on our shore trips.

I have more adventure planned that include sailing around the coast of New Zealand and Macquarie Island, back to the Kimberley and also exploring the coast of Chile. The Hyperlite pack will be with me all the way.

 

Special thanks for the photographs go to fellow adventurer Luca De Santis. A talented photographer & graphic designer, he also helps produce the Italian travel magazine Meraviglia Paper

Traveling Drives

August 25, 2014 — Leave a comment
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Transcend 500Gb drive

 

Traveling the world shooting video, we have seen cameras evolve from shooting on tape to card based memory such as SD, CF or even the latest like CFast cards. While its great to see the results of each day’s shooting, it also means that you can no longer simply hand a shot tape to the producer to take home to the edit room. Instead, it means late nights backing up to drives. That means fast write speeds are essential if you want to enjoy dinner, a good night’s sleep and to avoid hovering over your computer.

I set up a nightly routine of backing up both video and photographs to a drive. Starting with a folder for each day, I then create sub-folders for each camera. I also take the precaution of taking the drives in pairs and cloning the folders, so I have a back-up in case a drive is damaged or lost.

With growing file sizes from both video and still cameras, this means I can easily fill a 1Tb drive on a shoot, along with its twin for safety. On documentary shoots for television clients, it can easily exceed this….

I often travel to places where there is no replacing items in the field. This means the drives have to be reliable to minimize the chances of one failing. While I try to hand carry the drives, it also seems gate checking bags on small planes is getting to be the norm. I split the cloned pairs across my two bags, so sometimes get forced to trust one set to the airlines. Seeing the injuries that baggage handlers can inflict on my otherwise indestructible Pelican cases, I was immediately drawn to the products from Transcend when I saw that they are rated to withstand use by the armed forces. Although the jury is out to whether they are as dangerous as the airlines! But so far, so good….

As a result I just took a pair of Transcend drives on our expedition to the Russian Far East. Shooting images of the wildlife, landscape and people of the region was a great experience and detailed in two previous stories on Tymlat and Lorino villages.

Each unit worked flawlessly and with a USB3 connection, cut down the transfer time from my memory cards to the drives.

Transcend make a wide range of drives and I would recommend heading to their website for specifications. In general I would recommend the 500Gb or 1Tb units with the fastest connection that can be utilized by your computer. Bottom line…. I would thoroughly recommend these military spec drives to anyone and will be buying fresh units for each of my upcoming expeditions.

One addition to the mix would be a small USB hub if your computer has limited built-in connections when cloning from one drive to another. It seems Apple are saving money by limiting the connectors on their new designs…

We just had the great pleasure to visit Tymlat Village, a remote Siberian fishing village which is cut off from the rest of the world for much of the year. The people could not have been more welcoming. Here are portraits of some of the people that greeted us

 

(Posting to the blog is challenging from this remote part of the world, so I will follow up with more information when I get back to the US)

 

Just click on an image and scroll through the slideshow


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

We sailed on Silversea’s ship Silver Discover from Nome, Alaska, on the July 31st and headed out to the west across the international date line, jumping a day ahead as we did so. August 1st 2014 was instantly lost forever as the clocks changed (on the way back we will get two August 14th’s to compensate). In reality, it felt like we stepped back in time by decades as we sailed the into the Siberian outpost of Provideniya, in the State of Chukotka. It is a proudly autonomous region, but this town is also a relic of the Cold War and the power of the former Soviet Union.

5 Lenin wide

Reminiscent of Barentsburg far to the west in Svalbard, the strategic value of a remote settlement can sometimes be enough to justify its presence, even if geography and climate challenges its existence to the absolute limit. As we look at a world map, with its typical projection, the Atlantic ocean at its center and the world stretched out flat and distorted in order to appear on a flat page rather than a sphere, it is easy to forget that Russia and the US come so close together at the Bering Straits. In fact, at its narrowest point the twin Diomede islands sit just a couple of miles apart, straggling the date line and also the border. Big Diomede, on the Russian side, had all its native people forcibly removed as the Cold War escalated and now is only home to Russian meteorologists and border guards. In contrast, Little Diomede, on the US side,  is still home to a few native people, struggling to make a life amidst a geographical region engulfed by both a changing climate and economy, plus many social issues.

The people of Little Diomede and others Bering Strait villages like those on St Lawrence, or places like Wales, look out across the border to Russia, and although Washington DC controls their fate,  the East Coast of the US is a world away. The people in these native villages have family ties that span the US / Russian border, ties that are much stronger than links to us East Coasters.

Provdeniya used to be home to more than 8000 people. Situated near the narrowest squeeze of the Straits between the USSR and the US, it buzzed with activity during the Cold War. Growing out of a shared history between native people and hardy Cossack traders, it became important strategically and was home to a very active air force base and well equipped army stronghold. Today it is home to only 2000 people and although the native people of the region hang on to their culture, here as well as in the surrounding villages, the Russian influence is somewhat withdrawn, sleeping in the shadows waiting to reemerge when the time is right.

1 Cranes wide

We were greeted by a ominous fog, swirling through the town and amongst the giant Eastern German cranes that lined the dock. The cranes loomed like the giant machines from movies such as Star Wars or War of the Worlds. The scene told the story of the town once supported by the Soviet military machine, now sadly sitting waiting for revenue to return. We in the West remember the break up of the Soviet Union as being the fall of oppressive communism and peoples taking back self governance, something to celebrate. While that may be true, the other consequence is that the inhabitants of places like Provideniya no longer were supported, suffered financially and the break up of the USSR is seen as a disaster to locals in locations like this. This outpost has fallen into to ruin, but not completely into ruin.

As the Arctic’s rapidly evolving climate drives change across the region, you could say they are winners and losers. But questions remain as to whether these winning scenarios will be good for the health and well-being of the region. The North East Passage is opening up, allowing ships to shave off days their voyages between Europe to Asia, benefiting the transit of goods between these bustling markets. Laying in the wings, towns like Provideniya may benefit if ships call into her port, it is well protected and a welcome haven in this angry ocean. But the truth is that bulk carriers plying the waters between Asia, the West Coast of the US and onto Europe have no need to stop for fuel or other supplies, breaking their journey would just add time and cost to their voyages. On the other hand if a ship were to be in distress, a problem that happens time and time again, outposts like Provideniya would be key to rescuing the stricken vessel or crew, plus being the center of any environmental clean-up.

As we make this journey, the tragic situation Ukraine continues. With little access to news, I am weeks out of date on actual events but we feel the ripples caused by those events in this place, which is over 5000 miles away from the war. Delicate and skilled negotiations have also been required for foreign vessels visiting Chukotka, but in the days prior to our arrival, other entries had been refused because of directives that seem to come all the way from Moscow. Even the local officials wanted the ships to dock as they knew visitors would help inject valuable funds into the local economy, but had their hands tied by politicians a continent away.

As the West rightly tries find solutions to help end the conflict in the Ukraine, placing sanctions on Russia seems an obvious and non military solution. But there may be unforeseen consequences. I sense that creating financial hardship may in fact cause many Russian people be drawn to Putin, further bolstering his image as a hero and champion of their nation. By creating distance between Russia and the Western nations, there may be a danger that Cold War could escalate  all over again. Towns like Provideniys would likely benefit, as military expansion across Siberia is already taking place.

As climate change alters this region, there will undoubtedly be change in trade and economies across the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions. This also creates potential for conflict, as nations maneuver to control places like the Bering Straits, as well as the whole Arctic Basin. I am not an expert in international diplomacy, but if the future of the places like the Bering Straits are to be secure, building bridges between nations, to foster dialogue, seem like it must be part of the ongoing solution. If this fails, geography, climate and economic interests may fuel a new Cold War and stifle any change for good.

 

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Silver Discoverer- Home for the next few weeks

 

Previously I have been lucky enough to explore the eastern side of the Bering Straits and looked out at the Russian side, wondering what secrets were hidden away along that coastline. I am now heading to that region, via Nome Alaska, for a photo expedition with Silversea. The trip promises visits to native villages, old Russian outposts dating back to the Cold War, as well as spectacular bird nesting colonies, walrus haul-outs and whales.

Posting from the field may be challenging but I will do my best to upload photos and stories along the way, but if things go quiet for a couple of weeks, you will know where I am…

After leaving Nome, our first stop will be Provideniya, which looks like it will be reminiscent of Barentsburg in my old stomping ground of Svalbard…. A piece of old Soviet Russia. I am sure we will be met with a serving of black bread and vodka. Many of the city’s residents are native Yupik people, many of whom have relatives across the Bering on the US side. Despite the short geographical distance, these people hardly ever get to meet thanks to the political divide between Russia and the US. Its a great privilege for us to be able to make this trip and see a part of the world where few people get to travel.

Here are a few iPhone shots from my last trip to the Bering region. Its a rugged place but home to some talented artists… it was also great to see the Amundsen statue in Nome, having just seen an identical copy in Tromso, Norway, commemorating his sailing of the famed North West Passage.

Stay tuned for updates

Heading to the Bering Straits next week presents all kinds of challenges in terms of what photographic gear to take, how to keep it safe when flying to Alaska and then safe when traveling in zodiacs or hiking. Nikon have asked me to write a post for their Nikon Cinema Blog on “my tricks of the trade” for a shoot of this type. I will post a link when the story is published. Meanwhile the Nikon blog has some other fascianting behind the scenes stories from great shooters from around the world.

One thing I know will be useful is a waterproof pack to get my gear from the ship to shore, or just dry in the rain. My recommendation would be to check out the great range from Hyperlite. They are strong, waterproof and super light weight, which is the perfect combination for travel… And made by company based in the State of Maine!

Arctic Options

July 21, 2014 — Leave a comment

I am working as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded group, Arctic Options. Our goal is to raise awareness about the changing face of the Arctic. We are focusing on several areas for the study, including the Bering Straits, Western Greenland and the Central Arctic Ocean.

Regional map

The upcoming voyage from Nome, Alaska, to the Russian side of the Bering Straits will provide a great opportunity to see a part of the world that is very challenging to visit and falls right in one of our areas of interest. Stay tuned for updates from the expedition.