Life, etc

All aboard the SA Agulhas II

By Rebecca Davis 10 July 2012

The ship, South Africa’s new polar supply and research vessel, set sail on Monday from Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront. Its maiden voyage is a 26-day cruise to the edge of the ice shelf in Antarctica. REBECCA DAVIS took a tour of the R1,3-billion leviathan.

If you find the taxpayers’ price-tag for the SA Agulhas II extravagant, console yourself with the thought that this ship will be in use for the next 32 years, which is more than you can say for a government-employed Mercedes-Benz. Its predecessor, the SA Agulhas, was built in Japan in 1977 and powered its way through the southern oceans for the next three and a bit decades. The old ship isn’t going to rest just yet, either: it has been re-deployed to the South African Maritime Safety Authority, has been renamed the SA Dedicated Training Vessel, and is currently on the high seas fulfilling its new function of training seafaring cadets.  

Its successor, the SA Agulhas II, is freshly minted and was completed by its Finnish builders on 3 April 2012. It still bears traces of its Finnish heritage in the form of photographs on the walls and even a guide to Finnish phrases outside the sauna. (And then there’s the sauna itself: a Scandinavian signature if ever there was one.) Whereas the first ship was built primarily to act as a supply ship to service the three South African National Antarctic Programme research bases, the SA Agulhas II also has the capacity to function as a mobile laboratory for on-site research.

The ship’s maiden voyage is a “shakedown cruise”. Chief scientist Ashley Johnson, who is also the director for Oceans Research at the Department of Environmental Affairs, explained on Monday that this means the purpose of the voyage is to test the vessel’s capabilities “in conditions that she needs to get used to”. In other words, ice: the new ship is designed to break a metre of ice at five knots, something the old vessel could not undertake.

The ship has a total capacity of 44 crew members and 100 passengers, but on this voyage it will be carrying 49 marine scientists drawn from the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Weather Service, the universities of Cape Town, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and Western Cape, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and a handful of international scholars.

“We have tried to keep it as multidisciplinary as possible,” explained Johnson. “We’re trying to understand the physics and chemistry of the ocean as well as the atmosphere above it. Scientists have boxed research in silos for a long time, but are now fostering a new era of ‘earth system science’, which holds that you can’t exclude disciplines, because there are interactions between them.”

The scientists on board will be studying features of the ocean ranging from the tiniest living organisms – phytoplankton – up to seals and sea birds, as well as aspects like currents, atmospheric science and carbon dioxide exchange, which has a major impact on climate change.

“We hope to be getting to understand the ocean environment as a whole,” Johnson said.

It’s also the first voyage of its kind because it is being undertaken in winter, which Johnson notes is a “brilliant way of noting differences in ocean conditions”.

Their first priority, however, is to test the vessel itself in order to find out whether the state-of-the-art equipment works as it should. They will be sailing towards the Greenwich Meridian, hoping to hit ice at about 60 degrees south, which will test the vessel’s iceberg capabilities. This part of the voyage should take about 10 days, depending on the weather – the ship was slated to confront three cold fronts as it left the Cape Town harbour. Once they have hit the ice, the ship will stay there for about 12 hours for tests, and from there sail on to Prince Edward Island and Marion Island before heading back for two open days in Port Elizabeth.

“South Africa has a strange position on the globe because it’s surrounded by three massive oceans,” remarks Johnson.

The route is taking in Marion Island partly because it belongs to South Africa (technically the territory falls under control of the Western Cape, the DA will be happy to hear) but also because this area of the southern oceans has historically had far less data coverage.

“It’s important from a South African perspective that we fill data gaps in order to have better projections for the future,” says Johnson.

The crew was scheduled to start work on Tuesday morning at about 4am, as soon as the ship turned south. Conditions were, unsurprisingly, predicted to be cold and dark. As they sail further south, there will be a bit of sun available for a few hours on the horizon, but most of the time the light will appear as it would at twilight. To compensate, there is a high probability that the crew will be able to view the Aurora Australis – the southern lights.

But what does the ship that you paid for actually look like? Well, it’s a leviathan: 134,2m in length and 22m in breadth at its widest point. It’s also impressively kitted out. Leading us around, Dr Isabelle Ansorge of UCT’s Oceanography Department pointed out both wet and dry laboratories, with the wet areas equipped for research on filtration and biology, and the dry areas housing computers.

There are Jules Verne-looking machines aplenty: a “multi-net” apparatus which descends to 2,000 metres to retrieve samples of biological matter from each depth, a self-explanatory nutrient auto-analyser for samples, and the apparatus Ansorge describes as the “workhorse” of oceanographic research: the CTD instrument, which takes measurements of conductivity, temperature and depth. This machine is lowered through a “moon pool” at the ship’s base – essentially a kind of lift which opens to the water when activated and descends to the ocean floor as deep as 7km.

In addition to all the research, the crew also has to live. We are shown a neatly appointed dining room, with wide portholes on to the ocean. A menu pinned to the wall reveals extensive fare: for breakfast you can have eggs, fish fingers and bacon; lunch is a choice between Pasta Alfredo and Tomato Bredie; and dinner is either Grilled Hake Cutlets or Roast Lemon & Herb Chicken. Ansorge says the food is “very good. It’s easy to put on a few pounds here.”

Then there’s an auditorium, with lecture-style seating, screens and tables, where Ansorge will be teaching a module to UCT honours students on the cruise. “It’s pretty bling,” she admits.

We move on to a small gym, equipped with weights, cycles and a treadmill, and leading off that is the sauna, which Ansorge says is likely to become popular with students who are supposed to be on duty. A business centre houses internet-connected computers and photocopiers – it’s perfectly possible to receive email all the way down to Antarctica, which is bad news for anyone hoping for a connectivity break.

A comfortable lounge, dedicated to Miriam Makeba, has a smart coffee-maker, sofas and chairs and a small bar offering very cheap drinks (R8 gets you a Windhoek lager). Attached to the Makeba lounge is a smoking room guaranteed to make even the most hardened puffer flinch at the prospect – it’s windowless and no more than a metre and a half wide. For those who can’t face it, there’s always the option of the balcony.

The single cabins are about the size of a very small student room in a hall of residence, neatly appointed with a bed, a couch and a little en suite bathroom. They look pretty cosy, but “cabin fever” is aptly named, so the observation deck may prove popular as a (chilly) place for meditation. A row of chairs behind a glass-fronted shelter give a birds’ eye view of the deck below and, of course, the ocean.

The last place Ansorge leads us is up to the Captain’s Bridge, accessed through a formidable security door, which is a room not altogether dissimilar to the control deck of the Starship Enterprise. There are banks of screens, buttons, knobs and levers, and windows offering a 360-degree view of events below. It’s easy to forget about the noble scientific purpose of the ship up here and just see it as the ultimate boy’s (or girl’s) toy: you’d feel pretty special sitting there ploughing this beast through the ice.

The SA Agulhas II looks like a comfortable place to spend a month, and it should – it hasn’t come cheap. But given the importance of the research it will undertake, and the longitudinal nature of the investment, it’s hard to begrudge this particular instance of government spending.

Read more:

  • Antarctic ahoy for SA Agulhas II, on IOL

Photos by Jeanine Cameron


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