SA Agulhas II arrives

[Image] The Agulhas II is more powerful than
her predecessor when it comes to
breaking through ice.

[Image] The Agulhas observes penguins during
one of her 158 voyages.
(Images: Sanap)

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SA’s new Antarctic research ship

Christel Jordaan

Traditionally a ship is christened by breaking a bottle of champagne across her bows. For South Africa’s new research and icebreaking vessel SA Agulhas II, it was a bunch of sacred herbs gathered by a sangoma that welcomed her into South African waters and her berth at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

The traditional Xhosa concoction known as ubulawu, made from the root of the plant Silene capensis, is known as the African dream herb and is used to enhance the dream state during the initiation of sangomas, or traditional healers. It’s regarded as sacred by the Xhosa people.

Accompanied by singing and drumming, sangoma Mama Mangwanya used a foamy mixture of water and the herb to sprinkle the side of the 13 000-ton Agulhas II, thereby bringing the approval of the ancestors onto the vessel and ensuring that she always has a smooth voyage.

In more traditional fashion, environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa, whose ministry owns the Agulhas II, was on hand to formally take delivery of the vessel.

“The arrival ceremony of the SA Agulhas II completes a journey our government started back in 2005 when the decision to acquire a new polar ship was taken,” said Molewa.

She added that the ship will enable South Africa to better address challenges such as the impact of climate change on biodiversity, and extreme weather conditions.

“We will use our endeavours in the Southern ocean in order to contribute to the fortunes of the continent.”

“She’ll give us even greater understanding of some of the joint challenges we face,” said Derek Hanekom, the deputy minister of science and technology, “and will do world-class oceanographic and geological research that will make a critical difference.”

Molewa dedicated the R1.5-billion (US$191-million) Agulhas II to the life and achievements of the late South African singer Miriam Makeba, known fondly as Mama Africa. One of the ship’s lounges is named after Makeba.

“Mama Africa was a citizen of the world and like her this new vessel will be operating in the international arena,” said Molewa.

Specialised polar research vessel

The Agulhas II replaces her predecessor, the Japanese-built Agulhas, which will go into dignified retirement – although she’ll still be seen in our coastal waters – now that the new ship has arrived.

The Agulhas II was built by STX Finland and conforms to the latest Safety of Life at Sea regulations for passenger ships, issued by the International Maritime Organisation.

She is captained by Freddie Ligthelm, who was also master of the Agulhas. Ligthelm blogged extensively about the ship’s voyage from Finland to South Africa on a site set up by the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Agulhas II was specifically designed for research and supply, unlike the 34-year-old Agulhas, which was primarily an icebreaker that was later adapted to carry out polar research.

She will operate between South Africa’s research bases in Antarctica and on Marion and Gough islands in the Southern Ocean. The South African National Antarctic Programme (Sanap) runs a meteorological station on Gough Island, a meteorological observation station and biological research station on Marion Island, and on the continent of Antarctica Sanap conducts scientific research, including a number of space-related projects, and weather observation.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Agulhas II is particularly well-suited for climate change research, and the Southern Ocean holds many of the answers to dealing with this urgent global challenge.

“The search to understand the drivers and impact of a changing climate leads inexorably to Antarctica and the southern ocean, which we now understand are sentinels of global change,” said Molewa.

The department also pointed out that the ship was completed on time and within its budget.

The Agulhas II will now undertake a series of cruises to test equipment and train her new crew. She’s expected to embark on her maiden voyage into the Southern Ocean in September 2012, to Gough Island, followed by Antarctica in December.

Versatility

It took just 18 months to build the Agulhas II. Steel cutting started in September 2010, her keel was laid in January 2011 and she first floated in September that year. She was ready to sail out of Rauma in Finland in April 2012 after successfully completing ice trials.

With 46 cabins on board, she can accommodate 100 passengers and a crew of 45. She also has a helideck and hangar that can hold two Oryx or Puma helicopters; a fuel supply capacity of 500 000 litres; and a cargo hold of 4 000 cubic metres.

Her scientific capability includes 14 laboratories, eight of which are permanent and six in containers. These can be removed to make room for supplies, if necessary.

She also boasts a moon pool, or opening that gives direct access to the water below the ship. This is located in the environmental hangar and will be used to gather samples of ice.

This versatility makes her an invaluable asset to the South African scientific community operating in the planet’s southernmost reaches.