Our Burning Planet


Kremlin’s noisy ‘prospecting’ ship heads to icy south after frosty Cape Town reception

Kremlin’s noisy ‘prospecting’ ship heads to icy south after frosty Cape Town reception
A protester from Extinction Rebellion with the Russian seismic vessel, Akademik Alexander Karpinsky, in the background. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has departed South Africa to look for oil and gas in Antarctica, among other types of ‘scientific research’, her owners say. The ship leaves in her wake a determined cohort of climate campaigners who insist they will not let her off the hook.

Ongoing protests by Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace volunteers in Cape Town — one of just five official Antarctic gateway cities — have not stopped a Kremlin-owned ship from heading to Earth’s last unmined frontier for another year of apparent “prospecting” activities

The protests, which involved other associations and private citizens, hit Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront and harbour area to target the Saturday arrival of the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky — a Russian ship designed to look for oil and gas in Antarctica. 

After refuelling at the foothills of Table Mountain in recent days, the Karpinsky and her loud seismic airguns are now on their way to the extreme south, notes ship tracker Marine Traffic

Here, after stopping at Neko Harbour in West Antarctica near a Russian research station, she is due to head east where her airguns will blast through the ocean every 10 seconds to produce maps of the seabed’s contents.

According to an international mining ban under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty’s environmental laws, resource extraction is forbidden throughout the remote and icy continent, which is surrounded by the climate-stressed Southern Ocean.

russia antarctic zeitz

‘Hands Off Antarctica!’ Protesters walk from the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa to the National Ports Authority to demand that the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky be denied entry. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

However, those laws provide no definition for scientific research — which is allowed under the mining ban — and this is exactly what a December-issued annual report says the Karpinsky will be doing in the Southern Ocean.

Owned by the Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE), a subsidiary of Kremlin mineral explorer Rosgeo, the ship sails to the Southern Ocean in the coming weeks “to carry out complex geological and geophysical studies in the Davis and Mawson Seas” in Eastern Antarctica, says the report. 

When contacted for comment, PMGE managing director Pavel Lunev told Our Burning Planet that the subsidiary’s geological and geophysical surveys were “no different from the work conducted by other members” signed up to Antarctica’s environmental laws. 

In 2022, Lunev told us, the subsidiary had also probed “the glacial processes, dynamics and evolution of the ice sheet and the stages of Antarctic glaciation” and “the nature and foundation of the Earth’s crust”. 

Yet, the December report, published in Russian, goes on to note the subsidiary’s research goals are “decreed” by the Kremlin and include “the creation of an information base for the assessment and scientific forecast of the mineral raw-material potential of the Antarctic”. 

The subsidiary also has a contract with the UN-affiliated seabed authority to explore the central Atlantic for polymetallic sulphides.  

And, in February 2020, as the human planet plunged into a global shutdown, Rosgeo issued a bombshell statement out of the Karpinsky in Cape Town harbour. This claimed to have found 500 billion barrels of oil and gas beneath the Southern Ocean — which accounts for 50% of global ocean warming since 2005

Multiple Russian state sources, in fact, claim there are supergiant oil fields of 500 billion barrels, or 70 billion tons, beneath those far southern waters. Though the reports do not state how much of such potential resources may be recoverable from the fiendishly stormy Southern Ocean, this would equate to about 15 years of global oil consumption.

A previous paper by senior Russian academia has suggested that Antarctica’s environmental laws are a gentleman’s agreement, while other states may be engaged in similar activities. 

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Such sentiments concern, among others, some within the non-profit and polar academic community – Antarctica’s mining ban does not expire. But it can be renegotiated from 2048 with new conditions that could lift constraints. 

Other environmental concerns include new peer-reviewed scientific papers warning of the painful and possibly deadly effects of airgun noise on marine life, such as critically endangered blue whales and krill, the base of the ocean food web. Airgun noise is not only associated with so-called Russian research but other vessels such as Polarstern, the German icebreaker. The latter ship is renowned for her scientific achievements, but her airguns have boomed across at least 60,000km of ocean, compared with more than 100,000km in seismic profiles by Russia.   

Reaction to protests

Following Our Burning Planet’s investigations, which were the first to report on at least 25 years of the Karpinsky’s voyages through Cape Town, the peaceful rallies have provoked far-reaching reactions.

In recent days, the protests were covered by news agencies Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters. Articles also appeared in African, Asian, European, UK and US news organisations, as well as Russian state-controlled media — and the last vestiges of independent media in Russia.

russia antarctic george

‘We can eat fish. But we can’t eat oil,’ says Themba George, about the potential impacts of Antarctic seismic activity on South African fish resources. George is a volunteer with 350.org and attended recent protests against the Antarctic seismic survey ship, the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

The Karpinsky is expected to return to Cape Town before the Antarctic winter closes in on the Southern Ocean, making it difficult to navigate. Indeed, volunteers from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion in Cape Town have confirmed that they will continue to trail the ship’s movements, and hand letters of demand to authorities endorsed by the Green Connection, Oceans Not Oil, the South African Fishers Collective, Project 90 and the Helderberg Ocean Awareness Movement.

“We watch with sadness as the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky now heads off to Antarctica, armed with its weapons of sound to wreak destruction on the lives of whales, dolphins, while killing krill and plankton, all in the pursuit of fossil fuels which in the words of UN secretary-general António Guterres is ‘moral and economic madness’,” Extinction Rebellion Cape Town told Our Burning Planet

“We shall be submitting our written demands to the DFFE, and other relevant government departments and international bodies, to stop this madness. We will be watching for the Karpinsky’s return, ready to unwelcome them again.” 

South Africa’s Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries — which presides over the country’s polar interests — has not responded to Our Burning Planet’s repeated questions since October 2021, including a set sent on 1 February. Authorities representing the Antarctic Treaty have not responded to our repeated queries either. DM/OBP

Read Our Burning Planet’s highlights in our Battleground Antarctica investigative series: 

‘Gentleman’s agreement’: Despite mining ban, Russia scours Antarctica for massive fossil fuel deposits

Revealed: Inside Antarctica’s brutal, lingering noise war on marine life (Part One)

Revealed: Inside Antarctica’s brutal, lingering noise war on marine life (Part Two)


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