Images from voyage into a frozen world

Dave Mead
Dave Mead
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Having returned from the Antarctic to the North York Moors, Dave Mead tells Chris Berry about a trip of a lifetime.

An iceberg graveyard, a volcanic island and a close encounter with a 40ft hump-backed whale were just three of the highlights that Farndale sheep farmer and photographer Dave Mead experienced last year. Not in the North York Moors, but more than 10,000 miles away in the Antarctic. The photographs he returned home with were of such definition and spectacular subject matter that his first book is now available.

His interest in professional photography accelerated after attending a workshop run by internationally-acclaimed Yorkshire landscape photographer Joe Cornish. Their initial acquaintance blossomed into friendship and in turn led to last year’s journey of a lifetime.

“Joe mentioned that he was co-leading an expedition to Antarctica with the writer, broadcaster and wildlife photographer Mark Cawardine. I felt the cost would make it a non-starter. As the trip was scheduled in January I would also have been leaving my wife Pip to tend the sheep. Pip was great about it and was all set to cope with the huge knock our finances would take as the cost was indeed considerable. Fortunately we’d had a small windfall that softened the blow and Pip also asked her friend Jo to come over to help.”

However, Dave was still unconvinced that he should make the trip until he talked with another friend who was recovering from breast cancer.

“She said ‘look at me, you never know what’s around the corner, you’ve got to do it.’ It sealed the deal.

“We set off from Heathrow and flew to Buenos Aires. From there we took a provincial flight to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It’s so cut off that supplies arrive by ship and plane.

“Our ship Akademik Ioffe was a former acoustic research vessel originally built for the Russian Navy and there were 96 of us in the tour party. It was a two-day journey to the South Shetland Islands where we spent a couple of days before an overnight sailing took us to the Antarctic peninsula.”

Reducing the risk of contamination and protection of the environment are key to the Antarctic’s future wildlife and habitat. Dave found this to be of paramount importance to those who had organised the expedition.

“All outer kit that was exposed to the elements was supplied by those in charge of the tour and that meant that we had less luggage. It was also a very effective way of controlling what goes on and off the land. Antarctica has a fragile ecosystem and the last thing it needs is someone like me tramping about with bracken from the Moors in the tread of my boots. The tour organisers take this kind of thing extremely seriously, so much that we all had to vacuum out our camera bags. They oversee this to make sure it is conducted properly and to their satisfaction.

“There are also strict guidelines of what you can or cannot do. You cannot venture within 15ft of a penguin, but you can sit down on the beach and if a penguin walks up to you that’s fine. Our days varied between landings where we photographed penguins and elephant seals, and taking an inflatable boat trip looking at incredible icebergs and in the search of whales. The boats are similar to RNLI craft.”

It was the whale search turning to reality that reduced Dave’s colleagues, grown men and women, to tears as they experienced the most up close and personal whale moment ever seen on such a trip. It also provided him with the most sensational photography.

“Ten of us were in the 15ft long boat. The boats sail in pairs but they tend to sail sufficiently apart that a whale does not feel hemmed in and if a whale is spotted the engines are killed immediately. They’re not known for being sociable animals but this 40ft long hump-backed whale came closer and closer. It then dived under our boat and proceeded to stay around.

“It dived again and this time with the two boats no more than 10ft apart it came straight up out of the sea between us. It was the most amazing sight I have ever seen. Its head came right out of the water and it took great delight in spouting all over us. It was a distinctly strong fishy aroma.

“‘No-one else can have been ready for how close the whale was to come. Perhaps it was my ignorance of danger or just sheer stupidity but I like to think that I was simply in awe of what was happening as well as being incredibly fortunate. I recall never worrying when I turned around my neighbour Andy Fawbert’s bull for the first time back in Farndale, but this was something else.

“The women in the boat all wept openly whilst the men donned sunglasses and sniffed quite a lot. It was so emotional but sat back home now it all sounds a bit daft when you say it. I looked around and even the pilot was in tears. So I said, ‘this doesn’t happen every time then?’

“He said he’d never experienced anything like it before and when we were back on board the ship Mark Cawardine seemed seriously jealous. He has been whale watching for over 30 years and in the waters of 70 countries but had apparently never been that close.”

Deception Island provided Dave with a unique photographic location. It was once a whaling station and the rusted remains from when 150 men and women worked there 100 years ago made a huge impression on him.

“I don’t particularly believe in the afterlife but I could feel the atmosphere was heavy. Tens of thousands of whales were slaughtered there. Giant silos where whale fat was boiled are still there and whalebones litter the beach. I concentrated my photographic efforts on the whaling station for the three hours we were there.

“The island’s volcano is still active. The last time it erupted was in 1970. The whaling station was still in pristine condition until then. Joe and I were of the opinion that the rest of them could have left us on the island at the whaling station, come back a week later and we might by then have sated our appetite for this strange surrounding.”

Landscape photography is Dave’s main pastime and he wasn’t to be disappointed by what Antarctica offered.

“Iceberg graveyards are formed as a result of huge icebergs breaking off from others that are then pushed by the wind and weather into bays. As the water becomes shallower they then effectively run aground and become shaped over the years by whatever the weather holds. These are some of the most fantastic sights, but one that will forever remain in my mind is when we had experienced thick fog and snow. It lifted suddenly and stopped snowing. The whole landscape opened up like a fantasy scene of mountains covered in snow and ice.

“We were extremely fortunate that our eight days in Antarctica were blessed with good weather. I was told that one landscape photographer who had been on a previous expedition had only had 40 minutes of decent light.”

Dave has now self-published his whole story complete with sensational photography in a large, quality book. The cost may be prohibitive for him to put it on the market in a mass-published format but for those who can afford it, Antarctica: Trip of a Lifetime does what it says on the tin, or rather the cover. So what’s next?

“Pip and I have learned a great deal about farming since we came here but we’ve still a lot to learn. Photography is still my hobby and I have no real desire to make money out of it, but there is another trip coming up in August this year to the Arctic. I’m told that the trip is much more dangerous mainly due to the polar bears. Until then I will be back out in the fabulous countryside of the North York Moors adding to my landscape photography.”

You can view Dave Mead’s first book Antarctica: Trip of a Lifetime at Dave may also be available as a speaker for fundraising events. For more details call 01751 433053.