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Antarctic ahoy for SA Agulhas II

File photo: The SA Agulhas II

File photo: The SA Agulhas II

Published Jul 9, 2012

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Crew members and some 50 marine scientists, technicians and experts in fields like meteorology and ornithology will be hoping that they’ve remembered to pack their winter woollies when they sail today aboard SA’s new R1.3 billion polar research and supply vessel, SA Agulhas II.

The ship was due to leave Cape Town harbour at noon on its maiden shake-down cruise that will take it some 2 000 nautical miles (about 3 700km) to the edge of the winter pack ice surrounding Antarctica – probably somewhere around 60° or 61° South. Here it will test its ice-breaking capability and all its systems in probably the worst of polar conditions it will face every year while supplying SA’s various bases.

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The 26-day voyage, formally the “Inaugural Research and Equipment Testing Voyage”, is being broken into three legs: from Cape Town via the “GoodHope” research transect to the ice edge; from the ice edge to Marion Island; and from Marion Island to Port Elizabeth for a two-day “Open Day” goodwill stop-over before returning to the Mother City in August.

Scientists and technicians from the Department of Environmental Affairs, SA Weather Service, UCT, CSIR, and Stellenbosch and Rhodes universities will take part under the leadership of chief scientist Ashley Johnson of the department’s Oceans and Coasts.

An important aim is to sail into the winter pack ice – a floating mass of compacted ice fragments – and to test the ship’s propulsion systems under Antarctic conditions, the department explained in a statement.

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“All previous ice tests were carried out in the Baltic Sea, where the density of the ice is different compared to the Antarctic. This will be very useful in obtaining a ‘first feel’ of the ice prior to the year-end Sanae relief voyage in December. It will also allow the ship’s personnel... to undergo full operational training.”

But the scientists are also making the most of this rare mid-winter opportunity to do research of the kind more usually done in summer, although “summer” in the Southern Ocean is always a relative term.

The principal investigator on the first leg is Dr Isabelle Ansorge, a senior lecturer in UCT’s oceanography department. Research on this leg is part of the 20-year GoodHope programme that involves more than 20 repeat transects across the entire extent of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current flowing between SA and the Antarctic continent.

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Seabird and marine mammal specialist Dr Azwianewi “Newi” Makhado of Oceans and Coasts is principal investigator on the second leg, which will look specifically at the influences of oceanographic conditions and underwater topography on hunting by top predators breeding at Prince Edward Islands, like albatrosses, petrels, seals and elephant seals. - Cape Argus

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