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

The ship we are travelling on, the Akedemik Ioffe, is over 120 meters long. It is a big ship by research vessel standards – but not in comparison to cruise ships. We chose to travel with One Ocean Expeditions (based in Whistler, B.C.) principally because we didn’t want four restaurants, a casino, or a show hall. We wanted to be part of real expedition exploration. We are thoroughly enjoying not being total masters of our own destiny, as wind, fog, and particularly ice can and will cause changes in plans.

Because the Ioffe is a big ship, we have to transfer into smaller boats to go ashore if there is not a “big ship” wharf – which is pretty much everywhere, except in Ushuaia where we started, and in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. This vessel, like most expedition-type ships, uses small, rigid hull inflatable boats – often referred to by their inventor and still major supplier – Zodiac.

If you can envision a black, sausage-like inflated tube about 18 inches in diameter running around the perimeter (edge) of the boat, with a rigid aluminum floor and a 30-horsepower outboard motor on the stern, you will have a rough idea of what a Zodiac looks like. The Zodiacs are about 16 feet long and can take up to 12 people ashore at any one time.

The water is often rough, and depending on the wind, passengers are often sprayed or splashed as the Zodiacs run for the shore. For that reason, as we get ready to board the Zodiacs, we’re all wearing a rain coat, rain pants, and rubber boots. Cameras and binoculars are carried in something waterproof. We all line up on the starboard-side deck space and when directed, make our way down the gangway. There, we find both a Russian crew member and a One Ocean staffer to help people step from the gangway onto the Zodiac, which is most often moving in a different direction than the Zodiac. So far, so good – no one has gone for an accidental swim yet. The water here in the cold Antarctic sea is about 4 degrees C.

When the Zodiac reaches the shore, the person driving will nudge the bow up onto the beach to either unload or load for the return trip to the Ioffe. Passengers sit on the side-inflated pontoon, slide (or “skooch” is the term the crew uses) up to the bow, and then swing their legs over and either step onto the beach, or into a few inches of water. This is the major reason for the rubber boots! After exploring, photographing or hiking, the process is reversed to get back to the Ioffe. For morning excursions, we return to the ship for lunch, and often the Ioffe will reposition during that time so we can see something different for the afternoon excursion.

The One Ocean staff – another reason we chose this company and ship – are excellent from a number of standpoints. First, safety is always priority – multiple hands steadying people while getting into and out of the Zodiacs. Several different kinds of naturalists, an historian, a professional photographer, a painter – they are terrific in helping us understand what is unique about wherever we are at the moment. The talks aboard the Ioffe while we are at sea moving from the Falklands to South Georgia, and the Antarctic Peninsula add to knowledge, but because people are more engaged, they help change our perspectives as well.

One major reason for exploration-type travel is the change it causes in all of us. We may pride ourselves as good observers of what is going on around us, but it takes being on a ship, or a new landscape ashore, to cause us to become much more focused on what is going on around us. Watching people become more outward focused and more engaged is one of the best rewards of a trip like this one.

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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