Photographer Daniel Beltra describes how he captured his best photo with Greenpeace in Antarctica. Originally posted to the Guardian.
In 2007, I travelled to Antarctica with Greenpeace to protest against Japanese whaling. But, thanks to a fire on one of the whaling ships, the campaign was cancelled. So I found myself in the middle of the Ross Sea with access to a Greenpeace helicopter. We could just take off and fly.
Although I’d seen icebergs before, having been to the Arctic many times, I’d never had the chance to view one from above. There was something majestic and eerie about it all, with the water looking calm and transparent. I think the photograph gives you a glimpse into the depths below, too. This is a flat, tabular iceberg and I would say the visible white cliff of ice is around 150ft tall. I don’t even want to guess how far down beneath the water it goes, but it must be far.
It was February, towards the end of the summer in Antarctica, and the colours were striking. The scene was beautiful, but it was incredibly cold. We had completely removed the door of the helicopter to get the best view so, after being up in the air for a while, the cold became the biggest challenge. It was a little below freezing and we had to wear these cumbersome neoprene survival suits – in case the helicopter had to crashland in the icy water.
Anyone who spends a lot of time in small aircraft is going to have some near-misses. I had a crash landing in a small plane in Guatemala years ago – nobody got injured but the plane got trashed. The adventure side of my work gets a lot of attention, but that’s not really what interests me. Mostly, I like to challenge the viewer. At first, when you look at this image, it’s hard to understand. You don’t have a sense of its scale. You need to ask: “Where am I in relation to what I’m looking at?” And, in the same way, I try to get people to then think about where they are in relation to the issue I’m tackling.
With some images, it’s easier than others – when people see my photographs of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, they know what they’re looking at and what the issues are. But when you see a big chunk of ice that has broken off the Ross Sea shelf, the questions – Is the planet really warming up? Is the ice melting? – aren’t so immediately obvious. But they’re what I’m trying to lead people towards.
Nature and the environment have been always been important to me: I did another big project on rainforests. Whenever people ask me when I’ll finish these series, I say: “I don’t know, maybe never.” Maybe they’ll be finished when the ice is not melting and the forests are not being destroyed.