Voyage’s end for Agulhas

[Image]SA Agulhas sails from Cape Town on
December 8 on her 154th and penultimate
voyage to Antarctica, with South Africa’s
50th over-wintering expedition.
(Image: City of Cape Town)

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Dr Johann Augustyn
DEA chief director: Antarctica and Islands
+27 21 405 9406

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An era is set to end in early 2012 with the retirement of the SA Agulhas, South Africa’s polar research and supply vessel, after more than 30 years of servicing the country’s three Southern Ocean and Antarctica research bases.

Known by her call sign of ZSAF, the vessel’s 111.95m-long ice-strengthened steel keel was laid in 1977 and the ship was completed the following year by Japanese shipbuilding operation Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Since then she has been used to service the South African National Antarctic Programme (Sanap) bases, and has undertaken various research voyages.

Sanap’s Southern Ocean bases are on Marion Island and Gough Island, while the SA National Antarctic Expedition’s Sanae IV base is at Vesleskarvet in Queen Maud Land, 4 000km south of Cape Town. South Africa took over the evacuated Antarctic base formerly used by Norway.

The 32-year-old SA Agulhas – which has maximum and cruising speeds of 14 knots and 12.5 knots respectively, and a range of 15 000 nautical miles – is currently en route to Antarctica on her 154th and penultimate voyage, with South Africa’s 50th over-wintering expedition team.

The vessel sailed from Cape Town on December 8 on a voyage expected to take two weeks. She will remain in Antarctica until the end of January before returning to Cape Town. Her final Antarctic voyage is scheduled for the end of next year.

There are currently 112 people on board, including 32 crewmembers and the Sanae team that will replace the one completing their 14-month stay on the frozen continent. The ship’s capacity is 138, made up of 40 crewmembers and 98 scientific and other staff.

Since 2003 Sanap has fallen under the country’s Department of Science and Technology although the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) remains responsible for logistics and infrastructure – including the research vessel – relating to the programme.

Track the progress of the Agulhas online.

Antarctic presence 

South Africa has been associated with Antarctica since the country’s early days of European settlement, because of the Cape of Good Hope’s strategic position for Southern Ocean explorers, whalers and sealers.

However, it was only after the Second World War that the country became more formally involved in the region, establishing a permanent meteorological station on the British protectorate of Gough Island in 1948.

As part of its Gough Island lease agreement with Britain, South Africa provides a supplies and passenger service to the Atlantic Ocean island of Tristan da Cunha while en route further south, and over the years SA Agulhas has conveyed many visitors heading for a unique three-week stay on this island, which lies about 2 800km southwest of Cape Town.

South Africa established a permanent presence in Antarctica with the first SA national Antarctic expedition in 1959-60. Along with 11 other nations, the country was a founding member of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 which established a legal framework for the region’s management. The treaty stipulated that the region would be used for peaceful (non-military) purposes only and the signatory nations undertook to protect and preserve its environment.

Rough seas

Her more than three decades of service have not been all smooth sailing for SA Agulhas.

In December 1991 the ship suffered rudder damage while in the Antarctic. Assisted by the German icebreaker RV Polarstern, she was only freed from the pack ice in February the following year and was then towed back to Cape Town by SA navy vessel SAS Drakensberg for repairs.

In June 2002 it was Agulhas’s turn to assist, when she was dispatched to the rescue of the German-owned icebreaker Magdalena Oldendorff which became ice-bound due to severe weather conditions while en route from a Russian Antarctic base to Cape Town. Agulhas’s two Oryx helicopters transferred about 90 Russian scientists and crewmembers to the vessel, and delivered supplies to the crewmembers on the trapped ship who were awaiting a rescue attempt by an Argentinean icebreaker.

In September 2007, a crewmember was stabbed to death while SA Agulhas was near Gough Island. Two other crewmembers were accused of his murder but all charges against them were dropped in Cape Town 18 months later.

Bigger and better

South Africa has placed an order with Finnish shipbuilder STX Europe for a new 116.25m vessel to replace SA Agulhas, at a cost of R1.3-billion (US$191-million). The ship is expected to be commissioned in early 2012. The DEA has said the new vessel is crucial to South Africa maintaining its strategic presence in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

It is designed to carry cargo, passengers, helicopters and fuel, while also serving as a research platform, with 800 square metres of onboard laboratory space. The DEA said that the new ship will be able to break through thicker ice and will have a higher top speed than the Agulhas. This will enable scientists to stay up to a month longer at a time.

According to the DEA, South African research in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica has traditionally focused on the biological, earth and physical sciences and oceanography. However, new research opportunities include, among others, climate change, bio-prospecting, krill harvesting, tourism, pollution and human impact on the area.

It is not yet clear if SA Agulhas will be sold after her final Antarctic voyage or if she will still be used by the department for other oceanographic research work.