Under the ice with Greg Lecoeur

Award-winning photographer Greg Lecoeur spent 12 days diving in Antarctica, coming face-to-face with an array of wildlife and witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand. His latest book, Antarctica, captures the raw beauty of this fragile continent.

Words by Patrick Tillard // Images by Greg Lecoeur

Ten years ago, Greg Lecoeur sold his company and decided to dedicate his life to oceanography. He was driven by a desire to tell stories from the water through his photography, in the hope of raising awareness about the biodiversity beneath the surface and the urgent need to protect it. In the years since, his motive and skill behind the camera have taken him to far-flung corners of the world – Galapagos, Ecuador, Honduras and Yucatán – but he wasn’t fully prepared for the assault on the senses he experienced when sailing into the vast, ice-littered seas around Antarctica. 

“Every place I visit is so different,” he says, “but Antarctica is another world; seemingly another planet from anything else I’ve seen. The noises, I’ve never heard anything like it before – all you can hear is ice creaking and the song of the animals. It’s so pure and untouched.”

The adventure had started long before Greg and the team, consisting of freediver Guillaume Nery and cameraman Florian Fisher, saw their first iceberg drifting in the Southern Ocean. Many months of research, preparation and back-and-forth with their highly-experienced captain enabled them to map out a rough plan upon arrival to the white continent.

“The plan was to go there with minimum impact,” Greg says. “We loaded all our gear, food and equipment for five weeks into a tiny 15-metre sailboat and set off from Ushuaia. It was a challenging trip in such a small boat, made harder as we encountered rough weather - it took us 18 days to reach the Antarctic Peninsula.”

Once anchored in a quiet bay – where the team remained for 12 days before making the return journey to South America – Greg’s aim, as with his previous work, was to show the incredible biodiversity from a perspective that very few have seen before: under the surface, in amongst the action and ice, squeezed into a wetsuit as thick as a Persian rug. The wider mission was to highlight the effects of climate change – “because if it can be seen here, in the most pristine region on earth, it shows the extent of the damage it is having everywhere else in the world.”

“Sitting at home, it’s very hard to see, touch or feel the real effects of global warming. But in Antarctica, you can see that change firsthand – it rains there now, you can see ice calving and breaking up into small pieces. It’s happening right there in front of you. This was the story we wanted to capture and share.” 

Over the course of 12 days Greg spent a huge amount of time in the water, diving in 30-minute sessions before surfacing to regain the sensation in his fingers and toes, sticking to the upper water column down to only 10 metres – “this is where the big animals are”. He had intimate wildlife encounters with humpback whales, penguins, fur seals, crabeater seals, and the jewel in the Antarctic crown, the leopard seal.

“I had dreamed for a good encounter when organising the trip, and I was not disappointed. I spent nearly two hours in the water with a curious leopard seal. They are huge – one of the most impressive animals I have been in the water with.” (Watch the video to see just how intimate the encounter was.)

There is a privilege to such moments; being witness to something so wild, unspoiled, undocumented. The responsibility to capture a poignant reflection of the moment is something Greg carries into every dive.

“A great photo must tell a story without a single word,” he says. “A great photo doesn’t need a caption. I want my work to showcase the oceans and why we must take action to protect them. I want these images to educate people. Antarctica is an extremely special place. What happens there is happening everywhere in the world. We must look after it.”

Greg’s latest book, Antarctica, can be purchased here: www.greglecoeur.com

Follow him on Instagram at: instagram.com/greg.lecoeur