THE SEA & THE SOUL
Ukrainian polar captain: ‘I come from a family of seamen and long for Noosfera to return to my homeland’
There are many ways to be useful to one’s country. But, for the Ukrainian polar captain Oleksandr Gryshko, the need to be useful during Russia’s brutal war on his own country sent him voyaging to Antarctica — the wildest, coldest and farthest frontier on Planet Earth. Still, while Ukraine’s polar vessel shelters in Cape Town, Gryshko and his men dream about what may turn out to be their most emotional journey yet — going home.
It was Ukraine’s established friendship with the UK that delivered the 33-year-old Noosfera, previously the RRS James Clark Ross, to the now-war-battered port of Odesa in October 2021.
Inspected by President Volodymyr Zelensky himself, the ice-class research vessel had been the star of the UK’s polar fleet, until she was replaced by the souped-up RRS Sir David Attenborough.
At nearly £200-million, the price tag for the new UK polar research ship dwarfed the nominal amount spent by Zelensky’s government on the Noosfera.
The former British ice-class vessel now serving Ukraine’s polar research interests cost just £4-million — this relative bargain price was something of a goodwill “peppercorn” gesture by the UK government, which also donated Ukraine’s Vernadsky research station on the Antarctic Peninsula. (Vernadsky holds the longest-running climate records in Antarctica, inherited from the UK’s 1949-established station, Faraday.)
Currently gathered at the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting in Helsinki, Finland, most of the 29 decision-making member states have also expressed their support for Ukraine, including Poland and host Finland, which last week condemned Russia’s war aggressions in opening ceremony speeches. (At the 2022 Berlin meeting, BRICS allies China and “non-aligned” South Africa refused to join a mass walkout on the Russian delegate’s speech.)
But perhaps Oleksandr Gryshko would never have captained the Noosfera for Ukraine had it not been for the war.
For starters, he — like so many other Ukrainians — had not considered himself a military man until Russia’s brutal invasion of his homeland on 24 February 2022.
“I really wanted to be useful to my country,” Gryshko, who turns 40 on 6 June, recalls. “Thus, I found myself on the Noosfera and am happy to work on the Ukrainian icebreaker under the Ukrainian flag.”
Gryshko was born and raised on the shores of the Danube River in Izmail, a city in the Odesa region of southwestern Ukraine. Here, he hails from a “family of seamen”, who include his elder brother, father and grandfather.
“Continuing the family dynasty, I have been working at sea for 20 years,” he says. No fewer than 10 of the men in his family have worked as captains.
Ukraine’s 2022/23 maiden voyage onboard Noosfera was also his very first to the frozen, wild south, where he co-captained the vessel with fellow Odesa-native Pavlo Panasyuk, leaving for Antarctica from Cape Town in the first quarter of 2022.
Their task was to take scientists and supplies to Vernadsky and the Polish Antarctic research station, Arctowski.
“I am proud that I have such an opportunity,” says Gryshko.
“All seamen” — this is an all-male crew — “aboard the Noosfera use their experience and knowledge to the maximum so that the world hears more than once about our beloved Ukraine’s successes and achievements — including science.”
He describes Antarctica as the “insufficiently known continent of the world”, and the responsibility to be a custodian of Terra Incognita is immense, as is evident at the meeting in Helsinki this week where the consultative states have been grappling with rising tourism flows.
Read more on Daily Maverick: Helsinki or high water? Summit tackles Antarctica’s desperate battle
In the 2022/23 season, more than 100,000 tourists reportedly poured towards Antarctica’s increasingly popular, but sensitive, shores, so there is also growing pressure on Antarctica’s consultative (thus, decision-making) states — which include Ukraine as a significant player — to drive progress on tourism regulations at the Helsinki meeting.
Over the next two years, Ukraine is also chair of the influential Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources — the Antarctic Treaty body charged with protecting Southern Ocean species and regulating krill fisheries.
“Of course, you always remember your first impression, your first step on a new continent,” he says. “Also pleasing to the eye were the unusual shapes of icebergs created by nature itself. Separately, I would like to mention the inhabitants of Antarctica — penguins, whales and seals that were not afraid of people and passing ships. Antarctica is beautiful in its originality. We, the people, are obliged to preserve the state of this continent.”
Even so, being a man of the sea is not an easy profession, Gryshko reminds — the storms; the navigational conditions created by icebergs while working in Antarctic waters … all this is standard fare for his line of work.
Regardless, “the soul always demands to return to the sea”.
As for a soul that longs to return to the homeland, Gryshko says he and his crew accept that the Mother City — as for so many seafarers before him — is home for now.
According to Ukraine’s Antarctic authorities, the Noosfera — now undergoing “planned maintenance” — is also preparing for the upcoming 2023/24 expedition to the southern continent, and the ocean that embraces it fully.
While Ukraine’s expeditions have been moving between Antarctica and Cape Town, some Antarctic specialists have returned to Ukraine to fight on the frontlines. As seen in a photo exhibition curated by Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre at the Helsinki meeting hall, the scientists and support staff turned soldiers have all spent time at Vernadsky. They include biologists and a geophysicist, as well as IT specialists, cooks and a doctor.
“We greatly appreciate the warm welcome of our vessel and crew in Cape Town,” says Gryshko. “But we believe in the victory of Ukraine over the aggressor country. And we are looking forward to the day when the Noosfera will arrive back in the native harbour of Odesa.” DM
Tiara Walters is a full-time reporter for Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit. Walters’s travel to Helsinki has been made possible, in part, by the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Finnish Embassy of South Africa.
To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.