Day 12: The last expedition – Monumental Island (Sept 08)

Today is our final full day aboard Akademik Iöffe. A good portion of the morning was taken up by administrative functions (settling accounts, returning passports, etc.). As our passports were returned to us we were all given certificates to prove we had completed a transit of the Northwest Passage (take that Franklin!).

Just before lunch we had the opportunity to go on a tour of the ship. The Akademik Iöffe is a Russian built research vessel launched in 1989, not long after the end of the Cold War. Research is still carried out on the ship in between adventure tourism excursions, but since 1992 much of the original research equipment has been decommissioned. When the Soviet Union broke up, there was less funding for such research, so now the research is subsidized by profits from adventure cruises such as this one.

One of the decommissioned pieces of technology is a very large low frequency antenna which can be lowered 1000m below the ship and transmit long-range sonar messages to the Iöffe’s sister ship the Akademik Sergey Vavilov which could be up to 3000km away. Apparently this was for “science” or “research” purposes and certainly nothing clandestine. My suspicions were not helped by our visit to the engine control room. With its 1989 controls, teal blue wall and console paneling, and its Russian crew, it creates a scene reminiscent of a James Bond movie.

Around 2:30pm we gathered on the gangway for one last excursion, this time to Monumental Island. This island was named by Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall as a monument to the memory of Sir John Franklin and his crew. Hall became fascinated with the search for the lost Franklin expedition and spent several years in the Canadian Arctic during the 1860s. On his searches he followed up on King William Island where Francis Leopold McClintock had left off and found further traces of the expedition, including a complete skeleton of one of the crew members.

The weather gods were smiling on us for our cruise down the east coast of Baffin Island and today was no different. Bright sunshine and blue skies provided a wonderful background for our tour around the steep, rocky Island as we searched for wild life. A few gulls, a peregrine falcon and a handful of black guillemots were all that we could see so we headed away from the island to take a look at some large icebergs; one of them looked like a circus tent.

On our way back to the ship we passed around the front of the island again, just in case there were any animals we may have missed. All of a sudden, the group in the zodiac ahead of us started pointing excitedly and we heard over the radio that they had seen a walrus. Craning our necks and straining our eyes, we desperately scanned the the rocks near the water’s edge for the walrus but we couldn’t see it. And then one of the rocks raised a flipper to scratch itself. After a few passes, and many photos taken, we turned back to the ship. Either the walrus was sleeping and had no idea we were there, or it was purposefully ignoring us because it kept its back turned to us.

Back on the ship we had our final dinner, the captain’s dinner, which began with a course of delicious borscht (beetroot soup) in honour of our Russian captain and crew. After dinner we all gathered in the presentation room to watch a 15-minute slideshow of the past 12 days. One Ocean’s resident photographer had taken photographs which had been put by passengers onto a shared computer. The slideshow was organized by our itinerary and included video and even watercolour paintings done by some passengers of the locations we visited.

The Northern Lights made their final appearance of the journey and those of us who were celebrating the completion of the trip in the lounge all joined together to sing Stan Rogers’ iconic Northwest Passage. A fitting end to a spectacular, and eye opening voyage.

Words and photographs by Duncan MacLeod – Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum