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

Today marked a first of sorts. On our way to the Antarctic Peninsula, we made a stop at the South Orkney Islands, which are “south of 60 degrees” about half-way between South Georgia Island and the Peninsula. The islands are even more full of rock and glacier than South Georgia, and the sea around the islands was filled with floating pack ice.

The Akademik Ioffe’s (the research vessel we are on) captain managed to push through the pack ice, putting us in clear water near shore next to the Argentine Antarctic base, Orcadas. This was no mean feat – the Ioffe is not an icebreaker, but rather an ice-capable vessel, so pushing slowly through the packed in, but separate, pieces of pack ice was all we could do. Patience and great skill on the part of the Russian captain got us to where we needed to go.

The visit to the Argentine base was a treat – both for our travellers, and for the 17 scientists and others staff operating this remote station. The last ship that was able to call there was in March, 2012. For 11 months, the station staff had not seen another soul, had run out of dairy products six months ago, and had not seen a fresh fruit or vegetable for five months. Our ship was able to provide them with a bit of fruit, some milk and eggs, and a few fresh vegetables. We think the station staff was more excited than we were about our visit.

We also learned a bit about the history of the station (it was founded in 1903), and its work in using a large magnetic field to study earth’s ionosphere (the impact of solar flares on weather, for example).

Then, back aboard the Ioffe, we turned southwest for Elephant Island. At around 4 a.m., we found missing sea-ice half way to the island. Since then, almost 24 hours later, we have been heading back east, then South, and now north to try and find the edge of the icepack to go around it. The Ioffe is pushing aside chunks of ice the size of a single family house.

These are not tall icebergs; they are flat sections of frozen ocean – big and flat pieces of ice sticking up above the water anywhere from a meter to several meters tall. They are ideal resting places for penguins, mostly Chinstrap Penguins, and seals, mostly Crabeater Seals. Many of our explorers spent the morning on the bow deck, cameras in hand, because it is a rare experience to have a stable platform (the Ioffe) in the middle of a sea-icepack extending as far as the eye can see.

How much different it must have been for the early explorers in wooden ships, without motors, and without radar or satellite photos to help point the way. Of course, nothing is easy in these extreme latitudes; we are now in fog so thick you can’t see the length of the Ioffe (just over 100 meters long). Sigh. Hopefully the fog will lift, we’ll continue to find open water, and we can get on with our visit to the Antarctic continent itself.

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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