This photographer hunted down the Endurance

Fresh from an expedition's stunning discovery, veteran polar photographer Esther Horvath calls Antarctica 'the closest place to space on Earth'

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Her out-of-office email reads, “I am traveling between the two poles for scientific expeditions and have very limited or no access to email.”

Such is life for photographer Esther Horvath, who has been on more than a dozen polar missions to document scientists working to better understand the changing polar regions. She has photographed researchers prepping to be trapped in Arctic ice for a year, a science base where life is anything but lonely; and observed how to grow plants in space by visiting the coldest place on Earth.

Most recently, she was aboard the icebreaker (pictured above) off Antarctica that dramatically discovered Ernest Shackleton’s pioneering polar vessel earlier this month, entombed two miles below the icy surface.

Work near the poles is hard. Negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 24 hours of darkness make using her cameras and lights difficult, and the crew is always on guard for polar bears.

“Respecting their place,” as Esther puts it, “and keeping them and us safe.”

Despite the challenges, each expedition pushes Esther to be present and open to the idea that you may “not be able to plan everything as wanted.” A good lesson for a photographer; a great lesson for us all.

And always, the pull of poles is strong: “My body is back to civilization while my mind is still floating on a cloud of incredible memories, made in the polar darkness on the frozen ocean.”

Read the full story about the discovery of Shackleton’s Endurance here—and watch exclusive video. Below, see Esther’s work on previous expeditions.

Another type of endurance: Esther joined the longest and largest Arctic expedition in history for this Nat Geo story—and training was intense for some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Pictured above, a trainee practices swimming into a harness and being hoisted into the air.

More than potatoes: How do you prepare to grow food on Mars? For this 2019 Nat Geo story, Esther accompanied nine scientists working on this question at a German research facility on an Antarctic ice shelf, reachable only during the summer by icebreaker or plane. “It’s the closest place to space on Earth,” she told us. In a greenhouse, leafy Swiss chard, peppery arugula, and fresh herbs thrived. Pictured above, geophysicist Josefine Stakemann harvested cucumbers.

‘Life is not lonely’: That was the headline of Esther’s Nat Geo story from a remote Danish military outpost in the northeastern tip of Greenland—575 miles from the North Pole. One summer night was so warm the soldiers sat outside shirtless: one strumming a guitar; others reading. The Arctic is the fastest-heating place on Earth, and the outpost conducts climate change experiments. Pictured above, a helium-filled balloon measures air turbulence, solar and terrestrial radiation, and black carbon from the lowest layers of the atmosphere.

A postscript: On Friday, Esther departed the Endurance expedition, landing in South Georgia Island, where she planned to visit Ernest Shackleton's grave. "The strangest thing is to smell green in the air after 5-6 weeks of no smells at all," she told me. "It is an incredible feeling to smell again.”

Whitney Johnson is Nat Geo's director of visual and immersive experiences. Follow her on Instagram at @whitneycatherinejohnson.

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