Snow, Wind and Fire

The last week has provided some entertaining travel challenges and photographic opportunities.

I've been spending time in Aviemore in the Cairngorms photographing The Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain Aviemore Sled Dog Rally, before heading further north, via a rather bumpy ferry crossing to Shetland to watch the always dramatic Up Helly Aa in Lerwick.

The annual Aviemore Rally is the biggest event in the British sled dog racing calendar, and while it might not be the Iditarod, it does bring together several hundred enthusiastic drivers and handlers and well over 1000 dogs.  The big question ahead of the event is always “Will it be a Snow Rally?” The Iditarod may be able to rely on having snow (although I gather they did need to move the start point a few years ago to guarantee having deep enough snow), but the lower slopes of Scottish mountains in January are always going to be a bit hit and miss in terms of snow cover.

This year the event was 'blessed' with temperatures mostly just above freezing and quite a lot of heavy rain and sleet, so the rally was run with the dogs pulling three-wheeled rigs and the sleds stayed strapped to the vans and cars that had brought them to the Cairngorms.  On both days of the main event, the weather followed the same pattern; rain/sleet/snow and wind in the morning followed by a bit of sunshine in the afternoon.  The morning runs, which were mostly the bigger dog teams or 6 or 8 dogs, were generally in pretty poor conditions with very little opportunity for action photography, but the afternoon runs with small teams were run with bright sunshine and snow on the ground in some places at least.  The sunshine put smiles on the faces of the drivers and the ever enthusiastic sled dogs looked even more enthusiastic than usual.

Once the dogs and drivers had headed back to their vans, and the sleds and rigs put away, most of the teams headed back south, while I headed across the Cairngorms to see what was happening with the Shetland ferries.  Throughout the run up to the Aviemore Rally the news had been full of reports of disruption to the travel throughout the UK, mostly caused by flooding in the south of the country and elsewhere by high winds blowing in from the east.  The Rally was on the west side of the Cairngorms so was at least a little sheltered, although the Cairngorm ski operations higher up the mountains were pretty much blown out for the weekend.

The Northlink ferry between Aberdeen and Shetland runs every night of the year, but just occasionally the weather intervenes and the ferries need to stay in port.  Last week the ferries didn’t run over the weekend, and were cancelled again on Tuesday, but remarkably the ferry did run on Monday night when I had booked to travel.  This was also the last ferry ahead of the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick, the high point of the winter on Shetland.  The ferries north are always busy with huge numbers of people coming to Shetland for Up Helly Aa – but the weekend cancellations ensured that the boat really was completely filled. The boat pitched and rolled its way north from Aberdeen, every now and again putting in an extra dramatic roll to keep everyone on their toes.  I was grateful to be lying down in a dark cabin for the duration of the crossing, and my only major shock was a loud crash from the galley or bar above my head at some point as we crossed the Noost (also called the Fair Isle  Channel, the bit of sea between Fair Isle and Shetland that is rough even when the sea looks calm!).   I think everyone was relieved when we got into Lerwick about an hour ahead of schedule.

Up Helly Aa is a fire festival which celebrates the Viking traditions that stretch back deep into Shetland’s history.  Up Helly Aa in its current form started in the late 19th Century, and the highlight of the event is the procession through the streets of Lerwick led by the Jarl Squad (in full Viking regalia) and several hundred supporters carrying a flaming torches.  The Squad drag a replica Viking long-boat, which at the end of the procession is torched in a ceremony resembling a Viking funeral.

Up Helly Aa Day on Shetland is very busy, usually starting with a procession to the harbour front for a photocall before the Jarl Squad tour the town visiting schools, hospital and the Shetland Museum.  Although the Shetland weather isn’t allowed to interfere with the celebrations, there are occasionally a few variations – this year the strong easterly winds meant that the harbour-front photocall was relocated to somewhere just a little bit more sheltered.

The weather did, remarkably, co-operate for the procession.  Despite some heavy showers of rain through the day, it did stay dry for the procession and the burning, and the strong winds ensured that the blaze was very spectacular.

Once the blaze has died down, the Up Helly Aa party gets into full swing, with the celebrations carrying on through to breakfast time the following morning. The next day is, perhaps unsurprisingly, regarded as an extra public holiday for many people on Shetland.

There are more images from both the Aviemore Rally and Up Helly Aa on Flickr, just follow the links.

The two events almost always coincide, the Rally on the  last week-end in January, and Up Helly Aa on the last Tuesday, I think I might just put these dates into my 2015 diary.

A Week Photographing the Local Patch

I'm very fortunate in being able to divide my non-travelling time between houses in Shetland and in Oxford.  One thing I've noticed is that around Shetland I usually work quite hard at finding photographs, but in Oxford the pictures I take tend to be grabbed as I'm doing other things.

In some ways this is a function of the how I have, until recently, used the two places.

Oxford was where I spent my commuting and desk time, so inevitably photography needed to fit around other activities.  Shetland was mostly down-time. It was where I came for R&R, and there was always time to find, and take or make, photographs.  Maybe it's also true that I was more energised by the wildness of the Shetland landscapes and seascapes than by the rural and urban landscapes around Oxfordshire.

This week, in Oxford, has been a bit different. 
Sunday: Dramatic start to the week
I made the optimistic decision, perhaps encouraged by last Sunday's dramatic sunrise, that I was going to seek out photo opportunities rather than just hope that something would turn up each day.  

Monday: Talking about my pictures at the Jam Factory
The weather around Oxford certainly co-operated with my decision. Lots of heavy rain transformed Oxford into something more like Venice, but the heavy rain almost completely avoided the daylight hours and some bright winter sunshine gave every incentive to get out with camera in hand.  The floods around Oxford have transformed many of the familiar scenes of fields and roads into lakes and canals, and provided new perspectives on familiar places.

Tuesday: Oxford Botanics and the overflowing River Cherwell
Tuesday: Paddling on the Thames
Tuesday: Abingdon Road
I've walked, and waded, familiar paths but seen them very differently.  I've walked through parts of Christ Church Meadow, and seen the Cherwell spread way beyond it's normal boundaries.  I've looked down at the Thames as it spreads it's way around Iffley Lock.  I've also seen the chaos around the Abingdon and Botley Roads in Oxford as normal business gets put completely on hold.
Wednesday: River Thames looking to Iffley
Wednesday: Annie's Tearoom car park, Thrupp
A little bit further out of town I've got to places where there has been some flooding, but not quite the same disruption.  Annie's tearoom at Thrupp, just north of Oxford, stayed in business but was advising against using the car park.  
Thursday: Botley Road
Thursday: Allotments beside Botley Road
Port Meadow has flooded, as it is supposed to do, but at least the council car park was still usable, even if the picture area looked a bit damp.
Friday: Port Meadow
Friday: Port Meadow
My final stop of the week was to out to Otmoor, to see what all the rain had done to the water levels there.  As you might expect, the fields around the RSPB reserve had been transformed into shallow lakes, but under blue skies looked very dramatic, and I was even rewarded by an evening display from 50,000 roosting starlings.
Saturday: RSPB Reserve at Otmoor
Saturday: Starling Murmuration over the Otmoor reedbeds
And to round out the week, another Sunday Sunrise.
Sunday: Another lovely sunrise
Some of these images have already appeared in my blip daily photo  (, and if you want to see more from pictures from this week, there others on my flickr account. (

One interesting suggestion was to retake the watery images once things have dried out - I'll be doing that, but I suspect it'll be a few weeks before it's possible.

How Close?

 One of the really rewarding aspects of having my pictures on display at the Jam Factory over the last couple of months has been the chance to talk to lots of people about both the pictures and places where they were taken.

For a lot of people the highlights seem to have been the wildlife images; the puffins, the penguins and particularly the polar bears.  And the most common question about the polar bears - how close were you?

Close to the waters edge, Svalbard
The reality is that for all the pictures I've taken of polar bears, I was on boats of varying sizes and separated from the bears by at least 10 or 12 meters of water.  Polar bears are well known for their ability to swim long distances (they aren't called ursus maritimus without good reason), however they don't swim very fast and certainly not fast enough to out-swim a Zodiac.

The bear images, in my mind, fall into two groups. 

Some were taken from 'big boats'. In this context a 'big boat' is a 100m long expedition ship, and bear spotting involves seeing bears a long way away then stopping the ship at an ice edge and hoping the bears will come close.  The bears natural curiosity, and their constant search for food, means that they will move long distances to investigate. 

This family came up close to the expedition ship Ioffe, Northwest Passage, Canada

A ship, particularly if it's quiet, deserves closer scrutiny.  In a number of cases, I can remember seeing bears a long way off in the distance, and just waiting until they came within a few metres of the ship, sometimes even standing up to get a good look at the visitors. In this situation, the visiting ship is changing the bears behaviour, but the key is leaving the bear in control, he or she is making the decision to come closer to the visitors.
Getting a closer look at the expedition ship Vavilov, Svalbard
The other group of images, often the more intimate ones, are taken at bears-eye level from Zodiacs.  These are very manoeuvrable inflatable boats with outboard motors, which can move in towards the bears to get a closer look at what they are doing.  The balance here is getting close enough for good photographs, but not so close that the bears behaviour is changed.  My favourite set of bear images were taken from a Zodiac, probably no more than 15 metres from the bears who were in this case completely absorbed in feeding on a old whale carcass washed up into a bay in Svalbard. 

Walk the Spine, Svalbard
Concentrating on Lunch, Svalbard
In some cases, particularly with young bears, they will get curious about the visitors in the rubber boats too, and will try and get closer so that they can get a good look. The sensible thing to do at this point is to slowly back away from the bears, but this can provide some great photo opportunities.

Looking at the Zodiacs, Svalbard
You can have a closer look at some of these images at the Jam Factory in Oxford, until 13th January 2014 and on the North South Images website at any time (

Antarctica: The Soap Opera.

The great Christmas (and New Year) soap opera this year has been the unfolding icebreaker saga around the Mertz Glacier in East Antarctica with its ever expanding international marine cast list.

The drama has included five boats – four have already made an appearance on stage (or at least on ice), the Akademik Shokalskiy (Russian - the unwilling star), Astrolabe (French), Snow Dragon or Xue Long (Chinese) and Aurora Australis (Australian).  The fifth, Polar Star (from the US of A), is the as yet unseen hero what will, perhaps, sail over the horizon in the final act and save the day.

Act One. The saga started on Christmas Day.  A vast chunk of old multi-year ice from the Mertz Glacier starts getting blown along the Antarctic coast, neatly wrapping its way around the Akademik Shokalskiy, a small Russian-flagged, Australian-chartered research boat which was attempting to repeat a series of experiments that Douglas Mawson did along the same bit of Antarctic coast about 100 years ago.  Their plan was all going swimmingly until they realised that they found themselves trapped behind an increasingly thick and wide ice field.  Where once they has been about 2 miles from navigable sea, they were now 12 or 14 miles from  open water, and behind ice that far exceeded their ice-rating.  This realisation prompted a call to Falmouth in southern England (obviously) – who handed the message on to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (ASMA) who, to maintain the theatrical metaphor, took on the role of stage manager for the rest of the production.  The Shokalskiy, while not in any immediate danger, was not going to be in any position to sort out its own dilemma and was going to require assistance.  ASMA put the other three members of the cast on immediate call to provide assistance – all three, as required by the rules of the sea around Antarctica, immediately stopped what they were doing and headed towards the Shokalskiy.

Act Two. Scene One.  The Astrolabe made a brief attempt to break through the ice, realised it was out of its depth and exited stage left.

Act Two. Scene Two.  Snow Dragon (Zue Long) made an extended attempt to reach the Shokalskiy before eventually realising that it too was struggling.  The Snow Dragon stayed lurking on the back stage promising to provide helicopters if the ice breaking plan didn’t work out.

Act Two. Scene Three.  The Australian star enters the stage – and makes even more attempts to crash through the ice.  Again, without success.  The plot then takes its first twist – if one boat can’t do the job maybe two can.

Intermission. To give the media a chance to catch up with the story so far. And the weather a chance to ease a bit.

Act Three. Scene One. If the icebreakers can’t get to the Shokalskiy, maybe the people can be got to the icebreakers.  A plan is devised to use the Zue Long’s helicopter to ferry the Shokalskiy’s passengers to the Aurora Australis – and once the weather calms, this is exactly what happens.  End of Story.

Act Three. Scene Two. But no, we’ve only just had the intermission,  there must be more. Twist Two.  With all the Shokalskiy’s passengers (but not the crew) safely on the Aurora Australis, it makes ready to sail off into the sunset (bad metaphor this far south at this time of year),  just as the unlikely hero of the story, the Snow Dragon, discovers that sitting still for several days in a thickening ice field isn’t a good idea and sends out its own call for assistance.  The stage manager asks the Aurora Australis to remain where it is while the Snow Dragon attempts to unfreeze itself.   A little later, the Aurora Australis is told to take its bow and we are left with the Snow Dragon and the Akademik Shokalskiy (and their crews) looking at each other across the stage (or ice field) waiting to see what happens next. Tension Builds.

Act Four (yet to happen).  Will the US Coastguard in the form of the icebreaker Polar Star come and rescue our two lead players?

To be continued. Probably for several weeks. Maybe months.

Update: The two trapped characters do, after several days of struggling (and some changing winds), finally manage to extricate themselves from ice and head for open water. And the American hero apparently isn't going to be needed to save the day.

And to answer the obvious question, of course I was filled with envy at the experience the folks on the Shokalskiy have had. They’ll be dining out on this for months – and they certainly should have some good pictures.