By John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of Vancouver Aquarium

On Thursday afternoon, we boarded our “home” for the next 18 nights – the Russian research vessel called the Akedemik Ioffe. The ship was built in 1980 in Finland, and is operated by the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanography for the Russian Academy of Sciences. She is both comfortable as a floating base for exploration, and large enough at 117 meters to be stable in rough seas or weather. The ship itself is termed “ice competent.” It’s not an icebreaker in the true or classical sense of the word, but if it hits some floating ice, it is armoured and won’t sink. In Canada, we would call this a Class B ice vessel.

The Russians lease out this ship, as well as its sister research vessel, the Professor Sergey Vavilov, for ecotourism, which helps pay for the upkeep and operations of their scientific research program. The crew is Russian, including the captain and all of the operational staff. We also have three Russian scientists aboard.

Our explorers are here with One Ocean Expeditions – a Whistler, B.C. based eco-adventure company. One Ocean employs the “hotel” staff (meals and the hotel side of living on a ship), and the expedition staff including an historian, general naturalist, avian (birds) specialist, and two photographers, along with an expedition leader and assistant leader. One Ocean charters both vessels and operates expedition touring in the Antarctic during their summer (our winter) and during our summer in Canada’s Arctic.

The Vancouver Aquarium is grateful to One Ocean for their ongoing support – you can bid on an amazing Antarctic adventure for 2014 at the Aquarium’s annual gala celebration, Night at the Aquarium, this June, thanks to the generosity of One Ocean.

Once everyone had found their rooms aboard the ship, a safety briefing and drill were held – as is always the case when boarding a new ship. After we were briefed on how everything from meals to going ashore to explore would work, we donned life jackets and found our “muster stations” at one of two lifeboats – Port or Starboard depending where our cabin is on the vessel. The two lifeboats – white with bright orange dome-shaped covers (which we hope are never needed) hold about 60 people each, are totally enclosed, and are self-righting should they tip.

The food aboard the ship is excellent – three meals per day, plus tea in the afternoon. We had dinner once we were aboard and the ship had cast off, and headed down the Beagle Channel toward the Drake Passage and the Southern Ocean. Waking to breakfast the following morning, we spent the day with briefings, lectures and watching the sea looking for birds and cetaceans (whales and dolphins).

The amazing Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophris) and the very large Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) are something to behold. With the largest wingspan on earth of all birds (up to 350 cm), the Wandering Albatross lives most of its life at sea, except for brief periods on shore to mate and lay eggs. Many of these Albatross species are endangered, in part because they dive to catch fish and end up hooked on ocean-fishing long-line gear used throughout most parts of the world’s oceans. Watching them soar over the ocean and wheeling to dip close to look for food is a source of amazement.

So for today, our first full day aboard, it’s all about settling in and getting our “sea legs.” The ship has seven decks – the lecture hall on deck 1, and the dining room and “mud” room for donning and storing wet boots and gear we will use ashore are on deck 3. My cabin is on deck 6 – the same level as the bridge where the captain, mates and other ships operating crew are found. While there is an elevator, most guests seem to be taking the stairs – one exercise program for the week I suppose.

John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, is currently on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica with a group of explorers. He is providing regular updates during the journey.


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