The Ship

Name:

R/V Akademik Sergey Vavilov

Master:

Capt. Valeriy Beluga

Built:

Rauma, Finland 1989, for (then) Soviet Academy of Sciences

Length:

117m

Draft:

6.09m

Gross Tons:

6450

Engines:

2 x 6-cylinder diesels, 2500kW each

Fuel use:

20 tons/day at cruising speed

Normal speed:

8-10kts

Propellors:

Constant speed, variable pitch, plus 600kW bow & stern thrusters

Home Port:

Kaliningrad, Russia

Vavilov is one of 2 sisters (the other being RV Akademik Joffe), built in Finland in 1988/9, in the final days of the Soviet Union. Their ostensible purpose was "oceanographic acoustic research". The ships operated as a pair, with Joffe acting as a transmitter, and Vavilov, up to 3000km away, being the receiver. The signals enabled them to probe the characteristics of the sea between.
So much for the official purpose. Naturally, being the Soviet Union, their real purpose was to probe the water's contents, specifically for any US submarines that might lurk therein!
So, we are aboard an ex-Soviet spy ship! 20 years ago, what would the CIA have given to be here?

And how come it is now running polar cruises? After the Soviet Union imploded, many Russian ships, including these, were left rusting at their moorings, since the new Russia had no use for them. In stepped Peregrine Expeditions, who chartered them outright, and now run them as passenger cruisers.
In the "mud room" where we change out of our exposure suits on return to the ship, much of the former spy equipment is still in place.
When not running cruises, the ships are employed in genuine polar research, in fact much of the recent data on global warming & its effects in the high arctic were gathered by these ships.

More pictures of Vavilov


Aboard R/V Akademik Sergey Vavilov.

We are both very impressed by Quark/Peregrine's overall professionalism: everything just happens right.

30 Nov 2009. 54°15′S 68°19′W

1800 Left Ushuaia, course 104M. Sea calm. Sky ahead clear at low height. Sky behind low cloud, closing over Ushuaia. We have Cabin 324, just by the starboard ladder.
There is no general internet access aboard, but emails can be sent & received, via a modified ship's radio.

1830 Lifeboat drill.

1910 Course now 095M. Sea state: regular whitecaps (F4), swell 1-2m. Ship's motion noticeable. We are clearly heading E down the Beagle Channel (probably keeping to Argentinian waters). Comparison of the deck compass & the main display (in the bar) shows local magnetic variation 10degs, ie 095M = 105T. Late evening, course = 120M = 130T.
Argentina requires us to have a pilot until clear into the Beagle Channel, the pilot cutter came around dusk.

1 Dec 2009. 56°16′S 66°03′W

0555 Last night we passed out of Beagle Channel & turned South. Now getting Southern Ocean swell, about 4m. The ship's roll is well handled by the stabilisers, leaving mostly a pitch. Our cabin is on the starboard side, almost amidships, which is the best place to be, for least motion.
Sky is heavily overcast, 8/10, with occasional snow flurries.
We are told to expect the Antarctic Convergence about midnight tonight, with fog where the warm & cold airstreams meet. (This is the point where cold Antarctic water sinks under warmer water. Naturally, the air temperature changes with it.)

0730 Announcement that the sea is kind to us, no "Drake Shake"! Where possible, our course is to avoid very heavy seas.
The sky is now clearing.

1035 No bird-life visible (there had been some earlier this morning.)
Just sea all around, & no other ships in sight. Drake is, of course, no longer a regular sea route. Wind is too strong for me up top (at least, without a good reason to be there.)
The orientation talk noted that we shall, by intent, cross the longitude of the Horn, just so we can say we did it!

1630 Several kinds of albatross came & went at random. I tried to get pictures, & wondered why I couldn't see out of my camera viewfinder. Was the battery dead? No. The cause being my photochromic glasses, which had blacked more than I had realised, even in direct sun (the sky here being overcast). Since they darkened slowly, I hadn't noticed it. I remarked to one of the crew on the intense UV implied: he mentioned we are coming under the infamous "ozone hole".
The albatross seem to have left us now (apparently they don't range too far south), several pintado are darting around us, identifiable by the complex black & white patterns on their top sides. I went for the camera, but a snowstorm started up: the snow driving almost horizontally.
There was a very good lecture on the food web of the sea, with much information on the importance of krill & other tiny sea creatures. A call to see a whale blowing: I grabbed the camera & dashed for the bridge, but too late. Rik, who stayed in the cabin, saw it OK. A sweepstake is running for the latitude in which we see our first iceberg. All the Quark/Peregrine staff are mines of information: we shared dinner with Annie, who told us of the ship's history. Built in Finland in 1988, for the Russian Academy of Sciences, as an oceanographic research ship, specialising in ocean acoustics. Apparently the Soviets didn't build her themselves, as they knew they weren't as technically advanced as the Finns.
There is a big sensor array (currently used to hang lifejackets) in the "mud room", with a moon pool (submerged bottom doors to lower it into the water) beneath, plus a towed sensor array, and space for 1500m of cable.

2 Dec 2009. 61°22′S 64°15′W

0800 As we went to bed last night, we were just about 60S, ie the political boundary of Antarctica. During the night we crossed into Antarctica & also crossed the Convergence, so expect it to be colder now.
10 minutes ago we had 2 humpback whales just off the starboard side, I saw them from the bar, but didn't have a camera. These polar expeditions are very careful to preserve the vulnerable ecology: we were run through a drill for going ashore: we have to disinfect our boots (& anything else that may contact the ground) both going & coming.

0920 First iceberg sighted: no, I didn't win the sweepstake! (I was runner-up, though.) Ship's motion a steady roll, the "antarctic tango" going well.
The trick to photographing albatross is to get out about 0500, & shoot from low down (ie Deck 3), to get them against the sky, not the sea. This morning's wildlife lecture featured seals, ie "lifestyles of the large & blubbery!" Just as it finished, there was a call to see our best iceberg yet.

1030 A large tabular berg (about 2km long) to starboard. Later the safety lecture for using the Zodiacs to go ashore, & fitting for the exposure suits & small lifejackets used with them (unlike the big SOLAS jackets in the cabins, which are for emergencies.)

1430 South Shetland Is. passed to port.

1825 Antarctic land sighted ahead: Anvers & Brabant Is. Also the US icebreaker/supply vessel Nathaniel Palmer.

2230 Now in the channel between Anvers & Brabant Is. We are advised that we shall enter Lemaire Channel early tomorrow.
At dinner, we were talking with Tony the ornithologist: Rik asked him if global warming (which is not disputed) is in fact anthropogenic. He said yes, & opined that the sceptic arguments don't stand examination: they use the same data to support 2 different conclusions at different points, etc. As we closed the Antarctic coast, the evening's lecture program was cancelled, as everyone rushed outside. As we closed with the land, the swell died away, leaving an essentially calm sea, & little wind bar our own passage. I stayed outside shooting until driven below by the increasingly cold wind. Tomorrow, time for the thermal underwear.
We passed several bergy bits, often with penguin colonies. We also saw several whales, humpback & later minke, but they are too fleeting a shot to have much chance at a picture.

3 Dec 2009. 65°08′S 64°04′W

0730 The last 2 hours passing through Lemaire Channel, a narrow, ice-filled channel between 2 cliffs, up to 300m high. You can view the transit south-bound, as a sequence of stills, or north-bound as a 8MB movie. The sea was flat calm, being sheltered by the land. On the upper decks, a solid wind about 10kt.
Minimal wildlife at present: a few pintados, & occasional fins, generally believed to be penguins. Evidence of penguins (ie crap) trails on land, but no birds.

1425 This morning, went ashore (via Zodiacs) at Petermann Is. A large yacht anchored off our landing point (Circumcision Cove!), with a film crew ashore. Quark are very careful (as they must be) to keep us from polluting Antarctica: we have to disinfect our boots, & anything else that may contact the soil. Naturally, we must leave no litter behind.
Safety likewise: we cannot get near the accommodation ladder without wearing an exposure suit & lifejacket. A crew member stands at the ladder with a clipboard: each of us is logged off the ship, & logged back on. Every Zodiac carries spare fuel, and a "rescue barrel", which contains fresh water & food for several days. When we start a landing, 2 more barrels are set up on the beach, with a line between. We remove lifejackets & clip them to this line. Many colonies of Gentoo penguins, but just one of Adelies. This is significant, as the whole Antarctic Peninsula is a kind of "global thermometer" - species will migrate up or down it to their preferred temperature. Adelies prefer a colder climate than Gentoos. Previously there had been many Adelies here, but they have moved south. Both Gentoo & Adelie penguins are small, about 500mm tall. They follow well-defined tracks in the snow, rather than wandering at random. If you sit still near one of their tracks, they will come very close, having no fear.
Plodding through the 500mm of snow, often breaking through crust & sinking up to our knees, we fling our arms out to balance. This gave me a definite sense of empathy with the penguins: now if only we had their tails!
On the other side of the island are Argentine Islands, & a vast field of ice fragments of all shapes & sizes, presumably the relics of grounded bergs.

1915 Spent late afternoon (1500 - 1730) buzzing around in Zodiacs around the ″iceberg graveyard″ around Pleneau Is.
They are driven inshore by the wind, run aground, & then slowly weather away into increasingly weird shapes.
There was an excellent sundog: a complete ring around the sun, say 15 degrees diameter, caused by atmospheric ice crystals. We are told this is as good weather as Antarctica has ever put on. There were 3 cancellations for places on the overnight camp: several people nominated (including), we didn't win.

4 Dec 2009. 65°14′S 64°10′W

The morning featured a cruise (by Zodiac) around the Yalour Is., east of Argentine Is., in Penola Str. Also entering Waddington Inlet.
In the afternoon, we visited the Ukrainian Vernadsky Base, which used to be the British Faraday Base. John Major's government closed the station, then sold it to Ukraine for GBP1.00, as it would cost more to remove it. That pound coin remains embedded in the bar table. Apparently they once had a carpenter there, who occupied himself building a replica British pub! He used a stock of timber that was sent to rebuild the dock.
The bar is still in commission, although it now serves a mean line in Ukrainian vodka. That served to visitors is legitimate, but rumour has it that a far more deadly version is cooked up by the crew for their use during winter. Several of our people tried the visitors' version, one apparently downed 7 shots, thereby smashing the previous record. (How a visitor could beat a Ukrainian crew, to say nothing of our Russians, is a mystery!) Vernadsky was apparently the first President of the Ukrainian Academy of Science. The base features a post office, which will forward our postcards & stamp our passports. This is the southernmost point of the trip, 65.15S, 64.16W.
We also attempted to reach "Wordie House", a former British hut, but were blocked by the ice. We tried "icebreaking" a shore lead using Zodiacs, but had to withdraw in defeat. This evening we had a talk on nautical traditions, specifically things one should never say aboard, for fear of bringing bad luck. Examples include mentioning the Titanic, or rats. The latter are called the "long-tailed creatures".

5 Dec 2009. 64°54′S 62°52′W

Yesterday we nearly lost one guy who was left behind at Vernadsky - they had to make a special Zodiac run to get him. Today is Paradise Bay, & the hill by Almirante Brown station. Paradise Bay was so named because it offered a perfect sheltered anchorage: it is just as cold as anywhere else here. But the leaders agree the weather has been perfect: little wind & a flat-calm sea.
Just off Paradise Bay is Scunthorpe Cove: a large glacier tip in the process of fracturing into bergs. We heard several breakoffs (a hissing & rumbling), but didn't manage to see one. Jamie (our driver) pointed out one piece of bare rock above the calving edge: apparently it was covered in glacier last season. He wouldn't say definitely this was a global warming effect. We were warned that if Jamie ordered "sit down", to do so instantly.
Behind Almirante Brown (an unoccupied Argentine station) is a snow slope 50m high. A good climb, & a wet slide back down. A story about Almirante Brown runs that the doctor there once went crazy & set fire to it! Afternoon trip to Cuverville Is. A long trip around to the landing site, through another "iceberg graveyard". We followed penguin tracks up to a spot between several rookeries, & sat down to be quiet. Rookeries are noisy places, it almost seems that each in turn starts up a wild calling, then as they subside, another rookery takes it up. These calls can create distorted echoes off the cliffs, that sound just like people calling, only much louder.
Gentoos are well-known for collecting small pebbles around their nests: these seem almost like currency. The male brings such trophies to the nesting female, & they are stacked as a wall around the nest. Although pebbles are plentiful on the beach, many penguins find it easier to try & steal their neighbours' pebbles. Of course a fight results. Afterward, the female carefully scans her hoard, for all the world as though she were counting the pebbles, to see that none were taken.
If you sit still, penguins will come up very close: they are quite fearless of humans. Around are many avalanche & berg-calving sites, but you would have to be very lucky to see an event. Since sound travels relatively slowly, the action is over by the time you hear it. I heard one behind me & swung round, to see just the cloud of ice-dust from an avalanche.
My fully blacked-out glasses made the incoming weather look much more menacing than it actually was. The clouds appeared solid black, but in fact were light grey. I remarked to Annie that had I seen such black clouds in English "high country", I would have expected snow & got down. Light snow did indeed fall in later evening.
When I went to return to the ship, we all got into the Zodiac, to find that the propeller had been smashed, probably on ice. (I won't name the driver!) So a brief delay while they brought up another. Tonight the camping party got their chance. An overnight camp on Antarctica is an optional extra, but numbers are strictly limited, & we missed out. The camp should have been last night, but the weather was too uncertain. The evening's talk was by our doctor, on the popular subject of seasickness. He pointed out that the words "nausea" & "nautical" have a common root! Also he holds that the popular treatment, Dramamine, is ineffective. His preference is for Promethazine.

6 Dec 2009. 64°37′S 62°32′W

The campers all returned safely! It turned out they didn't use tents, just an open bivouac. With a light snowfall, I'm not altogether sure I envied them! Rik talking with one of the crew: based in Kaliningrad, the ship does a season in the Arctic first, to work-up before the Antarctic. Rik mentioned he wanted to visit the Arctic next: "don't bother" he was told, everything is gone, the ice & the wildlife. They saw no bears at all last trip. We are now heading back down Gerlache Str. Stopped in Orne Harbour, we had planned to go ashore. However the proposed landing site was blocked by brash ice, so instead we went for a cruise in the Zodiacs around the area, running close in under the imposing Spigot Peak, so named by some grog-starved sailor, from an imagined likeness to a wine-cask plug.
Our first sight of chinstrap penguins, which are a similar size to the others (just under 500mm).
As we headed out into Gerlache Str, some very threatening clouds blew up, & a light snow fell. We did a quick run out to inspect a curiously shaped berg, then headed back to the ship, as the temperature dropped. Running dead slow through a field of brash, then hard driving back to the ship. As I was writing this up, there was a call of "whale sighted!" Alas, it proved to be that ubiquitous species, the Southern Non-recurrent Whale: when I got up to the bridge, there was nothing to see. I did get a nice picture of mountains & sunlight, though. Afternoon featured a Zodiac trip around Wilhemina Bay, the sun came through & gave some beautiful light shows.
There is the 1915 wreck of the old whaling ship Guvernoren, several plates by now rusted right through, & a pile of old winches etc. jumbled up inside. On a small island nearby are the remains of 2 wooden ship's boats, doubtless from the same wreck. Apparently they are only exposed when the snow is unusually low (as now).
A brisk, cold wind got up, so we hurried back to the ship (probably about 2 miles), a fast, choppy & wet ride. This is our final stop on the Peninsula: overnight we head for the S. Shetlands & Deception Is. This evening was a barbecue (yes, there was vegetarian food) on the aft deck, with a magnificent backdrop of sunlit, snow-covered mountains. The music ran to a steady bass undertone of the ship's engines. The evening's talk was by the chef: some provisions are bought in Germany for a whole season, the rest are bought in Buenos Aires & trucked to Ushuaia. The ship will take 5-10 semi-trailers of food per trip, besides that bought in Germany.

7 Dec 2009. 62°58′S 60°30′W

0715 Posn. 63.04S, 60.30W, heading N toward Deception Is. There used to be a British research station here, but it was abandoned after a volcanic eruption in 1969
Gentle swell, 10/10 cloud, & light snow.
We heard yesterday that there had been 60ft waves in Drake Passage. At breakfast, we were warned to expect wet conditions for the Baily Head landing: dress well up, waterproof cameras, & do NOT stand up in the Zodiacs. So Rik & I set about improvising camera bags as suggested by the expedition photographer: poke holes in the bottom of a bag for the straps, & put it over the camera upside down. That way any water runs out. We have Ziploc bags for extra safety, & have sealed the strap holes with Gaffer tape. The sea was choppy, but little swell, the snow driven almost horizontal (which doesn't need much wind). We are told this beach is very rarely accessible by Zodiac, having a steep drop-off, & a heavy surge. This time we succeeded, running them ashore at full speed. They were then manually turned around, & shoved off again, the motor only being started when clear of the shore.
One Zodiac was nearly lost, when the crew was changing, & a wave caught it & took it away empty. Some heroics by the crew succeeded in retrieving it.
Deception hosts one of the largest chinstrap penguin colonies in Antarctica, they are everywhere. That means skuas are around also, preying on chinstrap eggs & chicks. Skuas essentially fill the role of birds of prey here, of which there are none in Antarctica. After lunch, we passed through the gap known as Neptune's Bellows (from the strong winds there) into the central opening of Deception Island. It is actually an active volcanic caldera, which last erupted in 1969, destroying the BAS station there. It has been abandoned since. The name arises because the first discoverers thought they found a "conventional" island, ie a circular land-form. They later found the opening, & realised it was hollow.
(Another tale has it that the inner lake looks like a safe anchorage - for small craft - but is not, as strong winds blow, & the sandy bottom is poor holding.)
The central lake is flat calm, & known as a safe anchorage. However ships as large as this need to use care entering, as there is a rock a few metres under the surface, dead in the centre of the entrance. So we carefully kept over to the starboard side. Once in, the Zodiacs took us ashore, to see the vapour rising from the water as the warmer water (heated by the volcano) hits the cold air above it. There was also a noticeable sulphur smell in the air as we landed.
The landing place was just by the old whaling station, being a noted spot for warm-water bathing. We were however, advised to swim last thing before returning to the ship, & its hot showers.
We went for a guided walk up to Neptune's Window, a gap in the caldera rim. Care is needed here, as the far side is a sheer drop to the sea. After returning to the beach, we set out to climb to the 300m peak known as Neptune's Nipple. This is a much longer climb, several of us (including Rik & me) stopped at about 2/3 of the way, where the heavy snow climbing began. Rik started back down, & some time later, I followed. The "summit party" didn't in fact reach the peak, they also stopped short, but well above us. Rik & I had made a pact, that I would swim, & he would video me. However, when I got back to the swimming spot, he had returned to the ship on an earlier Zodiac. So Vic filmed me for evidence! The water was warm at the very edge, but perishing cold farther out. Personally, I think the "Deception" relates to the alleged water temperature!
On returning to our cabin, I found Rik with his foot in an ice-pack, awaiting the doctor. It had become very painful, as he was climbing. It is now beginning to settle down. As I write (1930), we are clear of Deception, & have been warned to "Drake-proof" our gear. Later (2100) a nice tabular berg out to starboard. First sight of one: they don't form in the areas we visited, rather on the great Ross & Weddell Ice Shelves further south. It has been confirmed that we shall cross the longitude of the Horn, on the way back to Ushuaia.

8 Dec 2009. 62°24′S 64°12′W

0850 Plugging north through Drake Passage, in possibly 4m swell, the "Drake Tango" in full swing as we stagger about the ship. Rik's foot is somewhat better. At 0705 there was a loud impact, & a shudder passed through the ship. Don't mention the T-word! A quick mental review of the lifeboat drill. Probably just dropped into a hole where the water chose not to be!
Preparations starting for trip-end: settling cabin accounts, etc.

1200 Jamie gave a talk on South Georgia: glaciers there have retreated several miles in recent years, & the newly exposed rock has been colonised by penguins, which cannot breed on snow and ice, only bare rock, as the snow would chill their eggs.

1720 This afternoon was a film shot in 1929, around the Horn in sail. Showed what was reckoned one of the worst-ever Cape Horn storms. They were going the "wrong way", ie westward against the prevailing weather. Sobering to think we are in those same waters.
We expect to approach the Horn about 1900: we may not see it however. There is fog, with visibility about 500m. Apparently political tensions between Chile & Argentina mean that Chile makes life hard for these cruise ships, starting as they do from Argentina. We are often forbidden to approach within 12 miles of the Horn, which is Chilean. In the evening, we started the end-of-trip festivities, with toasts to all concerned. Followed by an auction of various memorabilia, in aid of Peregrine's project to save the albatross, which are seriously endangered by fishing. The birds take fishing baits, & are then trapped on the hooks.

9 Dec 2009. 57°21′S 66°51′W

1030 Rounded Cape Horn! Of course, it should be done under sail, and crossing Lat 50°S each side, to fully claim the traditional privileges, ie:

  1. To wear a single gold earring
  2. To drink the Loyal Toast with one foot on the table (in Royal Navy messes, at least)
  3. To piss to the windward

Our course ran NNW from Deception Is, which brought us just SW of the Cape. The Chileans were very nice, & allowed us within 3 miles of the Horn, giving an excellent view (thanks to Timur's enchanting voice, we are told). The visibility improved just as we approached. At 3 miles off, we turned west, so we did indeed "round" the Horn. Shelli, one of our leaders, said she could see a sailboat off the Horn, but my sight isn't up to that! Before lunch, was a very good talk by Jamie on global warming, with plenty of stats. & diagrams. This afternoon's talk is on Scott & Amundsen, followed by a tour of the ship's "private parts", ie the engine room, etc. We wondered what those large red buttons were for, on the bridge control panel. They fire explosive charges, if needed to cut away a fouled anchor.

10 Dec 2009. 54°15′S 68°19′W

0730Back to Ushuaia.

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