CLAYTON — The plan, at first, appeared audacious and out of reach. A team of experts would travel to Antarctica and trace the sailing route and landfall areas of the Ernest Shackleton expedition of 1914 to 1917.
Clayton residents and noted photographers David Doubilet and Jennifer S. Hayes were relaxing with Australian Michael Aw at a Florida hotel bar two years ago during a trade show for divers. Mr. Aw is a fellow underwater photographer and founder of the nonprofit environmental group OceanNEnvironment, which also publishes Ocean Geographic magazine. He suggested the expedition to them around midnight at the bar.
Seated in the dining room of their Clayton home with a panoramic view of the cold, gray St. Lawrence River in late March, a few weeks after returning from the expedition, the couple looked back on that balmy November night in Florida and the bold plan, which at first they didn't think would be possible to pull off, despite Mr. Aw's reputation.
Making the idea even more remote for Mr. Doubilet and Ms. Hayes was the fact that the couple photograph mainly in temperate and tropical waters.
"He's like the Tasmanian devil of explorations," Ms. Hayes said of Mr. Aw. "He's a good motivator and a dear friend and colleague who every once in a while I want to strangle."
"They're like brothers and sisters," Mr. Doubilet added.
"David and I said, 'Sure, we'll support you,' because we thought, 'He'll never get it off the ground.'"
Several months later, they received an e-mail from Mr. Aw.
"By God, he pulled it off," Ms. Hayes said. "He got all sorts of sponsors to finance it."
Mr. Doubilet and Ms. Hayes, as principal photographers, were part of the 57-member team of explorers from 18 countries that met Feb. 10 in Ushuaia, Argentina — the world's southernmost city — to embark on a19-day expedition to Antarctica called "Elysium: Shackleton's Antarctic Visual Epic." It would approximately follow the track of Shackleton and his crew after they lost their ship, the Endurance. In Greek mythology, Elysium is a paradise for departed heroes.
Besides photographers, the team consisted of filmmakers, scientists, historians and even musicians and artists — who later would find their paints and supplies trampled by penguins.
Nine expedition members, including Mr. Doubilet and Ms. Hayes, are also members of the New York City-based Explorers Club, a sister organization of the National Geographic Society formed in 1904.
The goal of the expedition was to record the flora and faunaof Antarctica and to produce a documentary and book in 2013 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of theShackleton's trans-Antarctic adventure. Members also hoped to gain insight into the effects of global warming on the region.
Mr. Doubilet has photographed more than 60 stories for National Geographic Magazine, where he is a contributing photographer-in-residence. His images have appeared in many other magazines and he has written a dozen books about the sea.
Ms. Hayes has a background in aquatic ecology and zoology. Her images also have appeared in several magazines and other publications.
Mr. Doubilet is a native of New Jersey, and Miss Hayes is a 1980 graduate of South Jefferson Central School, Adams. After graduating from SUNY Potsdam with a bachelor's degree in biology, she earned master's degrees from the University of Maryland in marine biology and journalism.
In Antarctica, the couple was met with bone-chilling cold, up-close encounters with seals, penguins and other creatures, spectacular scenery and hurricane-force winds that at one point caused 45-foot swells that damaged their ship.
The crew boarded the Finnish-built, Russian-flagged research vessel the Professor Molchanov, containing a Russian crew, at Ushuaia. The ship was specially built in 1982 for the Russian Institute of Science. The expedition's leader was Goran Ehlme, a Swede who has planned and led many trips to the polar areas and was the first to lead diving expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica.
On Feb. 13 the ship traveled out of Argentina via the Beagle Channel and then on to Drake Passage, the body of water from Cape Horn to the Antarctic Peninsula, the northernmost part of mainland Antarctica.
"Usually it's some of the roughest seas in the world," Mr. Doubilet said. "But it was flat as a pancake. You could have water-skied. I said, 'We're going to be sorry.' We've learned there's no free lunch."
That lunch was served especially cold on the return trip.
The first stop was Melchior Island on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Humpback whales were visible as expedition members entered the area.
To get to their diving sites on the expedition, Mr. Doubilet and Ms. Hayes had to board a Zodiac — an inflatable boat — while it was being hoisted by a crane off the ship. The swells made boarding difficult. Another factor that made things harder was that all the equipment, worth about $250,000, was loaded onto the Zodiac first, which meant that the photographers had to carefully find space while climbing aboard the suspended craft.
"Everything is a chore there," Ms. Hayes said. "Everything is a challenge."
The diving suits the couple wore were "super-heavy," Ms. Hayes said.
"You don't put yourself in a suit," she said. "You need help. It's something where you're dependent on the team. At other assignments, we're self-sufficient. There, it was like, 'Can someone help me with my glove?' It's really humiliating."
The diving equipment, Ms. Hayes explained, had "backups for everything," including two regulators, which supply the diver with breathing gas.
"Valves can freeze and cause free-flow, which is like a vacuum cleaner in reverse," Ms. Hayes said. "You could shoot to the surface like a ballistic missile."
Because of the ocean's salt content, the water can get colder than the two divers experience in such areas as the St. Lawrence River.
"It can get three degrees colder before it freezes," Mr. Doubilet said, who noted all dives began with "a super ice-cream headache."
The coldest water the pair dived in was minus three degrees Celsius (26.6 Fahrenheit).
Dives lasted for about 45 minutes.
"But the comfort level goes to hell in a handbasket in 20 minutes," Ms. Hayes said. "The smallest tasks have evaporated for you, such as pushing buttons on your suit and camera settings. Your hands become blobs of frozen plasma at the end of your arms."
Besides Melchior, the couple and the three other dive teams explored Cuverville, Danko and Astrolabe islands and the "iceberg graveyard" at Pleneau Bay, where prevailing winds sweep icebergs to the shallow area, where many are grounded. Off Astrolabe Island, the dive team had close encounters with leopard seals.
Mr. Doubilet and Ms. Hayes also descended down the sides of some icebergs.
"You go down about 60 feet, peer into the blackness and it keeps going," Ms. Hayes said. "It's dark and scary. While all this time you're thinking, 'Is the iceberg going to shift or roll?'"
Off Astrolabe Island, fur seals charged at cameras in mock aggression, blowing streams of bubbles at the pair and looking curiously into the divers' masks, wondering about the strange interlopers.
The next stop for the expedition was on Feb. 20 at Elephant Island, where in 1916, 22 men of Shackleton's crew stayed behind, sheltered by overturned lifeboats and sustained by the meat of penguins, while Shackleton and five others went to seek civilization and rescue.
Expedition members saw a healthy population of fur seals on the island, a species that wasn't there in Shackleton's time.
"These islands were stripped of their fur seal populations in the 18th and 19th centuries and are only now beginning to recover," according to an expedition report prepared by Mr. Aw and colleagues.
The captain of the Professor Molchanov doubted that expedition members would be able to make landfall on Elephant Island because of ocean conditions. He gave it a 15 percent chance.
"But when we get there, it's a clear, sunny day and everybody lands exactly where Shackleton's crew set up camp," Ms. Hayes said. "There's a beautiful monument there. It's a bust of the ship's captain who rescued them," Chilean pilot Luis Alberto Pardo Villalon.
The animals in the Antarctic, including those on Elephant Island, have no fear of humans.
"We had to be very careful not to step on penguins and fur seals," Ms. Hayes said.
The expedition spent half a day at Elephant Island before departing for South Georgia Island, where Shackleton had found a whaling station and rescue, but only after he and two crew members spent three days crossing mountains.
It took 21/2 days for the Professor Molchanov to travel from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island. It took Shackleton, in his lifeboat, 17 days.
The diving off South Georgia Island was not ideal. Ms. Hayes said the waste from penguins and seal colonies runs off the island, limiting visibility. She noted that many photographers gave up trying and instead body surfed in big waves with a crowd of fur seals.
The teeming life on South Georgia Island was nearly overwhelming for Mr. Doubilet.
"It's one of the great masses of life on the planet," he said. "We saw 350,000 penguins all in one spot. You think, at first, that life is so generous. But then you realize that it's nearly all the penguins in the world concentrated in one spot."
"You realize how vulnerable that makes them," Ms. Hayes said.
The return trip to Ushuaia, Argentina, was harrowing.
"We basically hit a hurricane," Mr. Doubilet said, noting wind speeds, up to Force 11 on the Beaufort scale, were at 65 knots, or 74 miles per hour. That's also when the swells of 45 to 48 feet hit the 228-foot long ship.
No progress was made on one day as the ship managed only to hold its position.
The weather caused a hole in the "pod" where the diving equipment was stored. The pod's heater also went berserk, melting a lot of equipment. Three-quarters of the expedition members became seasick. One suffered a concussion.
When the ship finally reached port, after logging 3,277 nautical miles on the expedition, it couldn't dock for two days because of another gale. Members were able to disembark the Professor Molchanov on March 2.
"Our ship sustained a great deal of damage," Mr. Doubilet said. "The bow was punched in. The railing system was wiped out."
The couple believe the expedition, which they received no salary for, created what its director, Mr. Aw, envisioned that night at the Florida hotel bar.
"It's a visual epic," Ms. Hayes said.
But another cold trip is on the couple's radar, along with polar bears, walruses and other animals.
The trip to the "high Arctic" (North Pole) region is tentatively scheduled in three years.
"Michael Aw asked us, 'What do you think about the Arctic?'" Ms. Hayes said. "We're behind him, and so is the rest of the team."