Lorna explores Antarctica aboard the Akademik Ioffe

Lorna Griggs

03 Jan 2017

Day 1: Ushuaia and embarkation

I won't bore you all with the least exciting part of the trip - 20 hours of flying spread across 3 flights spanning 2 days! We'll start in here at El Fin del Mundo. Ushuaia is a pretty little town, mostly visited by travellers heading to Antarctica or on their way to Patagonia, and has some lovely shops and restaurants. The main street is typically touristy, but there are some quaint little souvenir shops.

After a good night's sleep, I set out to pick up a few penguin themed decorations for my Christmas tree back home. I've been very lucky, with all my previous trips to Ushuaia being warm, sunny and altogether lovely! Today however, luck wasn't on my side and I shopped in the rain. I walked down to see the Akademik Ioffe docked down at the pier, and was surprised to see I wasn't the only one. Several other hardy travellers had braved the rain and come down to see the ship too, so at least I wasn't the only one stood around getting rained on!

After a morning shopping and some lunch, it was time to head back to the Hotel Albatros, ready to meet the group and embark the ship at 4pm. Several other travellers from our group had gone out to explore the area around Ushuaia a bit. There are a few tourist attractions here that are worth a visit if you have the time, the train at the end of the world is a fun excursion, and trips up to the national park are incredibly popular.

Our luggage had been taken to the ship already so it was a quick check in and then off we went. Once on board, everyone set off to explore their cabins and get to know the ship a bit before a group meeting in the dining room.

The Akademik Ioffe started life as a research vessel. She was built in 1989 for the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanography - I know, catchy name!  Ioffe was designed for hydro acoustic research along with her sister ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. They are virtually silent ships, and luckily for the guests on board, 2 of the most stable at sea!

The crew informed us that on the previous trip, they had a couple of relatively calm days on the Drake heading down to Antarctica, but experienced the full force of the Drake Passage on the way back, so despite the ships stability, the crew warned guests concerned about seasickness to go ahead and take their pills or put on their patches now!

After an initial briefing, we set sail out into the Beagle Channel, and luckily the sun had come out for the occasion!

Everyone went up onto the decks to watch us sail away, before a lifeboat drill so everyone knew what to do in the event of an emergency. After dinner, we went back outside and got a few bird watching tips from Caroline, the resident expert on board, I stayed until about 10pm before jetlag caught up with me and I decided to get some sleep!

Find out more about the Akademik Ioffe

Day 2: The Drake Passage

Here we are in the Drake Passage! I'm writing this at 6am day 2, and the ship has been rocking since around 3am. Having spent years working at sea, I actually don't get seasick, and quite enjoy rough seas. While I wouldn't class the seas as rough yet (I'm not tying down my furniture and I've sunbathed up on deck in worse seas than this!) I can imagine that to some of the other guests this is quite rocky - I'll ask them at breakfast if any of them show up! Today we have a day of on board lectures, some time to explore on deck, and some down time to relax before we get to Antarctica.

Afternoon update: the seas are so much calmer than I think anyone was expecting! There was a good turnout for breakfast and lunch and the lectures have been busy! I think everyone is even more excited now having seen some of the resident photographers’ shots, and learned a bit more about the whales and birds we'll hopefully be seeing during the trip. 

Day 3: Continuing down to Antarctica

Still crossing Drake Lake. It's so unbelievably calm! It's 11am and land was sighted about half an hour ago, which is pretty good going! The first glimpse of land was Smith Island, and we could see the white snowy cliffs looming on the horizon. Most of the group were up on deck or the bridge (open bridge policy is such a fantastic thing!) watching both the land and the birds. At this point we've seen all kinds of Albatross - Southern Royal, Black Browned, Grey Headed, Light Mantled Sooty and Southern Giant. 

We crossed the Antarctic Convergence last night and the temperature has dropped from +8 to +2 degrees Celsius. For those that don’t know, this is where the Antarctic seas meet the warmer waters of the north. Also known as the Antarctic Polar Front, the waters to the south differ greatly from those to the north, with a variance in salinity, density and temperature. As the waters meet, the colder, denser water drops to the bottom and the warmer waters rise to the top, creating a sort of whirlpool effect under the surface. This area is great for algae and krill, and the waters are rich with nutrients. With this crossing of the convergence we are now seeing different birds, and there have been a few whale sightings too. One which we failed to identify, and then humpbacks breaching right in front of the ship - one of them was definitely showing off! 

We also saw some chinstraps “porpoising” which was a brief yet brilliant encounter!  

Apart from mandatory IAATO briefings and bio security, the only other plan for the day is a Zodiac briefing and lots of time on deck interspersed with a few optional lectures on glaciers and Antarctic exploration. We will be landing for the first time tomorrow. 

Day 4: We've arrived

Paradise. Breath-taking. Incredible. Honestly there are no words that do Antarctica justice.

 I woke up at 5.30am and looked out the window. Surrounding the ship was the most incredible other-worldly landscape that has to be seen to be believed. I made a flask of tea and went out onto the deck and honestly, I cannot tell you how amazing it is to be on a ship that is this quiet. The silence was amazing. The sun was shining and the sea was flat calm, reflecting the mountains like a mirror.  After breakfast we went out on our first excursion which was set to be a Zodiac cruise around Whilhelmina Bay. The aim was to see whales, but the sea ice, penguins and seals made the morning fantastic, even though we didn't see any whales. It is early in the season for whales, so we were content with the ice and the scenery! We cruised around for a couple of hours, although it felt like 10 minutes! I would have stayed all day but the afternoon’s excursion was a trip out to see a Gentoo penguin colony!

Reluctantly we went back to the ship, only to find as we pulled up, that the fabulous crew had set up a barbecue on deck! The sun was shining and the view couldn't have been more perfect. We had an incredible lunch watching the penguins and the scenery!

This afternoon, we took a Zodiac cruise out to Cuverville Island to see the penguins. A we cruised towards land, we saw a huge number of icebergs which had grounded in the shallow bay, it was the most amazing sight. It looked like a kind of art installation! When we got to shore we split into groups. The staff had already marked the paths we should stick to so that we didn't cross any of the penguin highways. One group went for a long hike, the kayakers went to for a quick walk over to the penguins to take some photos before heading out to paddle, and the rest of the group stayed along the shore and at the penguin colony. The penguins were so comical! Wandering along in the snow, occasionally tripping and falling along the way! We spent the afternoon with them before heading back to the ship for dinner and an early night as tomorrow we were going to try camping in Antarctica if the weather conditions were good enough!

Learn more about Antarctica's penguins

Day 5: Landing on the 7th Continent

This morning saw our first official landing on the continent rather than the outlying islands! For a lot of people this was their 7th continent so there was a lot of cheering! Some of the group opted to hike up to see a chinstrap colony, others were kayaking or Zodiac cruising. I joined the assistant expedition leader Eva and a couple of others for a cruise around the bay and we were rewarded with some fantastic penguin sightings and found several smaller colonies of penguins! We also found some incredible ice sculptures and were on the lookout for whale although they seemed to be avoiding us and we didn't see a single whale all morning.

Everyone who wanted to camp on the ice had to attend a mandatory camping briefing up on the top deck to go over how it would work and ask any questions. It's much easier to speak to the group on the ship than on land once everyone had landed via different Zodiacs. Eva taught us about the sleeping bags and mats we would be given and explained how the set up would work. About 70% of the group turned out for the briefing, Eva guessed that some would get scared off before it was time to head out for the night and warned us it was still subject to weather conditions.

After lunch, it was back out for another walk/hike. The hikers group went up to the top of the hill for the views, the walkers walked the shoreline in amongst the penguins. A couple of minke whales were seen as another ship cruised into the bay, and they went off in the direction of the kayakers who got a sighting too! Everyone was excited to check minke whales off the list of species they wanted to see! 

It was a beautiful afternoon and the weather was great so everyone was hopeful that today might be the camping night!

Back on ship, we got the news at dinner that camping was going to be possible!!! This is when everyone (myself included) started to wonder if it was actually a good idea! We were heading out at around 8.30pm and wouldn't be back until after 6am, but we decided that it would be worth it for the bragging rights and went off to put some layers on. The spot we picked was beautiful. Sheltered from most of the wind and on a flat slope, we collected our sleeping bags and kit, before digging out the holes we would be sleeping in. We weren't going to be in tents, so it looked like a cold night ahead. Once we were set up with our ice pits, we wandered around chatting and taking photos and watching the sunset. The most incredible bit of this experience was watching the colours change in the sky, as you’re surrounded by absolute silence. Everyone got into their sleeping bags about 11pm ish and settled down to try and sleep, this was my first time sleeping in 5 layers… so promised to be interesting!! 

Want to travel to Antarctica on board the Akademik Ioffe in 2017?

Day 6: Waking in the ice

I was pretty unsuccessful at sleeping! It was colder than I expected and not the most comfortable either, but a few of my camping neighbours slept really well. I was awake a lot of the night but completely gave up trying to sleep around 2am as I couldn't feel my toes... However this turned out to be a good thing as I was one of only a couple of people to see the Adelie penguin wander into camp! At about 5am the group started to wake up and get up. Before we could leave we had the fun job of packing up our things and re filling all the holes we had made in the snow. It had frozen solid overnight so the shovelling was harder than expected and especially difficult on no sleep or breakfast. By the time we arrived back to the ship I was cold and tired and it was so nice to walk back into the warmth.

After breakfast, I decided to try and sleep before the morning’s excursion but was woken after about 30 minutes to the announcement that there were killer whales swimming nearby! I grabbed my camera and went out onto the deck, and sure enough they were right there in front of us! The Captain turned the ship in a circle so we could follow them for a while and we got some incredible sightings and photos. There were so many of them! The ones we saw were type B2 killer whales who frequent the channels around here, they are quite small in comparison to orcas found in other parts of the world, and quite small in comparison to the B1s who also hunt in Antarctica.

This morning’s trip was out to Paradise Bay where the guides marked a trail up to the top of a hill where there were incredible views over the bay. The views here honestly have to be seen to be believed, you can't take it all in because you want to be looking everywhere all at the same time. The reward for the hike up the hill was sliding back down the hill in the snow! Some of the group did this several times, despite the tough climb!

The plans for the afternoon changed a little. We were heading for Neko Harbour but Boris (expedition leader) informed us at lunch that we had been in touch with one of the bases nearby at Waterboat Point, and the guys working there had invited us to visit! The base is owned and run by Chile, and they have a little museum and gift shop, as well as a huge number of Gentoo penguins! We landed at the base and made our way up to the buildings from the shore, along the muckiest penguin highway I've ever seen! The penguins are of course used to humans since they live on the base, so they would just wander along between us as we stood around taking photos, completely unfazed by the sudden influx of large humans in red jackets!

The absolute highlight of this visit for me was getting to meet Lucy. Lucy is a leucistic penguin and one of only a handful that have ever been seen in Antarctica. Leucistic penguins have a recessive gene, which gives them reduced pigmentation, essentially they have light brown or blonde feathers where other Gentoos have black. They retain the same overall pattern, and still have an orange beak and white crescent on the top of their heads. Albino penguins have no pigment at all, so are completely white. Lucy is the first blonde penguin I have ever seen, and it was love at first sight!!! I must have stood watching her for at least half an hour as she sat on her nest keeping her 3 eggs warm. We wandered the base and walked through the museum and gift shop. The guys living there must have made a small fortune from us as I think everyone bought something! 

It was a fantastic afternoon, and I officially have a new favourite penguin.

Day 7: More wildlife sightings

This morning the plan was to head out on a scenic Zodiac cruise around Cierva cove. There are a couple of penguin counters (researchers) on board who wanted to head out and count penguins on Isla Pinguino so the rest of us cruised around the island. We were hoping to get close to some of the icebergs and with luck, perhaps see a seal or two. It turned into the most incredible morning!! We found a seal pretty quickly and circled him in the Zodiacs. He was sprawled out on the top of a berg and watched us curiously as we photographed him. As we zoomed away to have a look at the ice, one of the other Zodiacs called to say they had a minke whale! Of course everyone went straight there. It was estimated that it was a young minke, who seemed super curious and was hanging around the Zodiacs trying to figure us out! For half an hour, this whale swam around the entire group, surfacing before diving and swimming right underneath the Zodiacs. In the clear water we could follow him the whole way! He played with us until we decided to head out and look for other wildlife and then followed us! 

As we sailed away, we looked around at a hissing noise and saw humpbacks swimming nearby!

Mikkelsen Harbour was our afternoon destination. This was a landing, and a visit to see more Gentoos. The island we stopped on was quite small and relatively easy to hike. The guides had set up a trail path all over the island while avoiding getting too close to any of the penguins and seals. There were 6 seals sleeping as we approached the beach, and one of the guides advised us via the radio he had found elephant seals on the other side of the island so off we went! The snow was quite thick and soft so in some places we sunk as soon as we stepped forward, but watching the penguins wander down their little highways made the walk worth it. I'm looking forward to being able to share more photos from this trip, I don't think me writing about the views is enough! They really are so beautiful.

Discover Antarctica's Wildlife

Day 8: Our last landing

Deception Island was the destination for this morning’s trip out. This was also the spot for all the crazy polar plungers to go for a swim! Deception is an active volcano, and the bay is quite desolate, covered in black volcanic rocks and sand. There are streaks of snow and ice which provide a stark contrast to the black sand, and the mist from the warmer water hitting the cold air makes the whole place slightly spooky. The remains of an old scientific research base lie here too, destroyed when the volcano last erupted in the 1970. We walked along the beach and found a couple of seals hauled out and sleeping. A pair of curious Gentoos came to see us too, as well as a lone chinstrap. The swimmers went in around 11am, everyone stripping off on the beach to run into the water before running right back out again to warm up!

We sailed back out through the entrance to the caldera, Neptune's bellows, through the mist.

This afternoon was our last excursion before setting sail back across the Drake Passage on our way back to Ushuaia. We stopped off at Robert Point to see a chinstrap colony, but the highlight without a doubt was the elephant seals. There were a few groups of them hauled out on the beaches and several large males among them. One of the males decided to shuffle his fat self into the middle of one of the groups, a decision that was met with much grunting, snuffling, huffing and puffing! The penguins wandered the beach unfazed by this display, but it was fascinating for us to watch. 

You really can’t comprehend just how amazing the wildlife of Antarctica is until you are there and it’s right in front of you. There were so many times where I had to stop and pinch myself, because it was so surreal to be standing just metres away from things you usually only see narrated by David Attenborough! Back on board, most of the group were out on deck to watch us sail away as we turned north for the Drake. 

Days 9 & 10: The adventure is over

Our trip was now over! We set out back to Ushuaia and were informed by the crew that the waves were picking up a little. By the evening of day 9, we were due to be sailing through 30 ft waves, which I have to be honest, I was quite excited about! The thing is… the Ioffe is so stable, that I barely noticed the waves! Some of the other passengers were feeling it a little, but one dose of meds from the Doctor on board, and hardly anyone missed meals. The crew resumed their programme of lectures and talks, with more information on seals, birds and glaciers. The meals were once again exceptional, and we lazed away our days between eating, chatting, games and lectures.

Day 10 saw some big waves in the morning, but by the afternoon we were back in the Beagle Channel, and dropped anchor for the night before we sailed into Ushuaia the following morning. As we were sitting in the channel, a call went out that there were dolphins swimming around us! The whole group ran to the decks and managed a solid 20 minutes of dolphin watching before the Captain’s dinner. 

We ate, drank, and celebrated an incredible trip as the sun went down over the horizon, and then it was back to pack before an early breakfast and heading home! 


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