Our Burning Planet


Ukraine polar research vessel likely to stay in Cape Town ‘until end of war’

Ukraine polar research vessel likely to stay in Cape Town ‘until end of war’
The Noosfera, Ukraine’s polar research and resupply vessel, noses into Cape Town port on 29 April 2023. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

Anchoring at the southwestern tip of Africa on 29 April against all odds, Ukraine’s Noosfera continues to seek refuge in the Mother City for the foreseeable future.

Despite war raging on domestic soil, Ukraine’s polar research and resupply vessel — the Noosfera — arrived in the Antarctic gateway port of Cape Town during the last weekend of April. 

Returning natural scientists and technical staff who overwintered at Ukraine’s West Antarctic Vernadsky research station during the past year, the ice-strengthened vessel also transported participants of the Polish Antarctic Expedition. 

The war-torn state’s four-month science and logistics expedition was organised under Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre (NASC), and replenished the polar research station with new staff and supplies for the upcoming year.

As a signatory to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and related logistics agreements, South Africa offers ‘gateway’ facilities to fellow signatories, such as Ukraine. (Video: Tiara Walters)

On the journey back to Cape Town — a gateway port for polar vessels from across the world — the Noosfera braved a four-day tropical tempest over the Atlantic Ocean. According to the NASC, winds reached 60 knots per hour while storm waves towered up to nearly 10m. 

“Assigned tasks were completed, and the Noosfera returned to Cape Town, where we are always warmly welcomed,” Captain Alexander Grishko noted on the NASC’s Facebook page

The Noosfera is likely to stay in Cape Town until the 2023/24 Antarctic season, says the NASC. 

Sailing back to her home port of Odesa “until the end of the full-scale war is not planned”.

“We all dream and make our best efforts when Ukraine will celebrate victory, and we will meet our wonderful Noosfera in Odesa,” says NASC director Evgen Dykyi. “But now we can be proud of the fact that the flagship of the Ukrainian research fleet has successfully completed the Antarctic mission for the second year in a row. We do not stop despite all the enemy’s attempts to destroy us.”

Ukraine, since 1992, has been a signatory to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty — the international agreement that reserves the vast, icy continent and ocean for so-called “peace” and “science” ideals. The state has maintained its research station since 1996, but launched Noosfera’s maiden voyage less than a month before Russia unleashed its ongoing full-scale offensive on Ukraine sovereign territory on 24 February last year.

South Africa, a “non-aligned” treaty founding signatory with Russia and 10 other states, has offered passage to both Ukrainian and Russian polar vessels since the start of last year’s invasion. 

Although far-flung, frigid Antarctica is the only continent on Earth never to have seen war-induced human bloodshed, Antarctic politics have not escaped the effects of fighting between Ukraine and Russia — both consultative parties to the treaty. 

Ukraine’s polar budget has been slashed by the war, while a Russian missile during the October 2022 strikes severely damaged Kyiv’s polar headquarters — narrowly missing a server containing the longest-running ozone and climate data in the Antarctic. 

For its part, while using Cape Town as a launchpad, the Russian state vessel Akademik Alexander Karpinsky has never stopped looking for oil and gas in Antarctica despite the region’s 1998 mining ban. 

According to senior experts active within the Antarctic Treaty System, the suite of agreements governing the region, Russian activities constitute ‘violations’ of the mining ban. 

While relaunching the city as a gateway destination in February, Cape Town Executive Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis told Daily Maverick  that Russian Antarctic and other Russian state vessels were a “shameful moral disgrace”. The power to stop them from docking in port, however, rested with national government, he said. 

These activities have also enraged South African activists, including Extinction Rebellion and 28 other civil groups, who in February sent a letter of demand to the South African government. 

Meeting in Finland during their annual two-week meeting at the end of May, the treaty’s 56 states have yet to acknowledge the matter publicly, although South African authorities in recent responses to Daily Maverick queries said the government was collaborating on an effort to strengthen the mining ban that Russia is accused of violating. DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

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  • Alan Paterson says:

    Please don’t anyone tell the ANC that there is a Ukranian vessel in Cape Town! We may just have to deport the crew to Russia out of solidarity with Putin’s noble bid to stop the heinous invasion by Ukraine!

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