Over the weekend, you may have read the story about a passenger ship that ran aground in the Far North late Friday.
That ship, the Akademik Ioffe, is a Russian research vessel that has been used primarily by One Ocean, an adventure travel tour company based in British Columbia that operates ships ferrying travellers from around the world through the Canadian Arctic as well as Antartica during their short summer seasons.
I was on that very ship just 12 hours prior to the incident that sparked international headlines, so you can imagine my surprise waking up Saturday morning to this surprising news. The vessel ran aground near Kugaaruk, Nunavut, forcing an evacuation of the boat's passengers to the company's sister ship. There were no injuries and the boat was "refloated" a day later.
I had just finished a 10-day Arctic expedition with my wife and my father between Aug. 14 and Aug. 24. We visited archeological sites and Inuit communities along the shores of Ellesmere, Baffin and Devon islands and through part of the Northwest Passage.
Along the way, we encountered an array of wildlife such as gulls, seals, walrus, and the iconic symbol of the north, polar bears. We spotted approximately 25 different polar bears on land, swimming in water, and resting on floating chunks of sea ice as they travelled along on the ocean currents.
The Russian captain of the ship was skilled at manoeuvring the 118-metre, 1,738 tonne vessel quietly and stealthily around sea ice when approaching polar bears to be photographed by the passengers.
I was surprised to hear that the ship ran aground in the Gulf of Boothia, north of the community of Kugaaruk in Pelly Bay where we disembarked for our journey back home. One Ocean claims to have had a spotless safety record, but with constant travel in Arctic, that was bound to end at some point.
The Arctic is an ever-changing environment that is nearly impossible to predict. The original itinerary had us flying into Resolute to begin the expedition as well as ending the trip in that same community.
That was not to be, however, as everyone travelling in the Far North is at the mercy of constantly shifting sea ice and countless massive icebergs that arrive from Greenland glaciers that are calving and breaking apart.
The town of Resolute, our original start and end point, was cut off from us due to heavy concentrations of sea ice against the shore.
The Akademik Ioffe has a strengthened hull to safely deal with ice, but we would not be able to move between the ship and the shore with the small zodiacs that are just not able to penetrate the ice. So, while we flew from Edmonton to Pond Inlet, which has an airstrip and an ice-free zodiac landing beach, the Ioffe cruised there to pick us up. As a result, our entire expedition itinerary completely changed.
The captain and our expedition team leader mapped out a new set of plans on the fly as to where and when we visited entirely different sites based on weather conditions and sea ice charts that are issued daily by the Canadian government.
This was becoming a true exploration adventure. And I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Changes to travel plans such as these are normal and original paths are seldom successfully followed. It takes skilful planning to safely guide these ships through the Arctic when the ocean is free of ice enough to travel at all. It is a short summer sailing season that only lasts weeks.
The skipper and his crew along with our expedition leaders and guides who work for One Ocean expertly resolved every problem that needed solving, and our entire journey, although altered completely from our original plan, went off without a hitch.
In fact, we covered far more territory than originally scheduled, and because of that we discovered a pair of islands that hosted nearly 20 polar bears that were within easy reach of our zodiacs.
This one place, Hecla and Fury Islands, ended up being the highlight of our journey and resulted in photographs and experiences with the bears that will never be forgotten. The team leader for One Ocean said that they will now be adding this new-found polar bear hotspot to future planned expedition itineraries.
If you read the initial reports about the grounding of the Akademik Ioffe in the past few days and wondered how this could happen and why a ship is even up there to begin with, know that these trips yield valuable information.
Here is just one example from our particular expedition: the Vancouver Aquarium had a four-member dive team on board that made several dives around the Northwest Passage with us when we did our zodiac travels each day. These dives were the first by anyone in these areas and provides the scientific community quite a lot of information. They also captured dozens of fascinating wildlife specimens that included starfish, worms, isopods, vegetation, fish, and much more that have been transported back to the Vancouver Aquarium for study and public display.
This is not the first nor will it be the last time a ship runs into trouble in the Arctic, but the risks, as low as they are due to the extensive planning and the depth of experience that the crews have, are outweighed by the science that is conducted thanks to the generous assistance offered by One Ocean to accommodate these otherwise far-too- expensive research trips for many in the scientific community across Canada.
It is also easily worth it for people like myself who need to explore our country as far north as we can go. We are losing more and more of this fragile ecosystem every year and time is running out to visit, study, and enjoy this incredible part of our world.
Kevin Lamb is a freelance photographer for Village Media, whose work has been published extensively in the Simcoe County area.