By Ben Maclennan

South Africa's ability to take on poachers in the Southern Ocean received a major boost on Monday when it took official delivery of its first deep-sea patrol vessel, the Sarah Baartman.

"We said we mean business, and we are showing it," Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said at the handover ceremony on board the 83-metre-long vessel in Cape Town harbour.

The Sarah Baartman will be the flagship of an eventual fleet of four marine patrol vessels commissioned by Van Schalkwyk's department.

The other three, including the Lilian Ngoyi, taken into service last year, are designed for coastal waters only.

Monday's ceremony, which included a performance by a group of young Griqua dancers from the Knersvlakte, to the rhythm of a traditional Khoisan music bow, was also a tribute to the memory of Baartman, a Khoisan woman who was exhibited as a freak in 19th-century Europe.

Cape Town poet Diana Ferrus read to the VIP audience the poem she wrote about Baartman, which played an important role in securing the French government's permission for the repatriation to South Africa in 2002 of Baartman's remains. The remains had been kept in a Paris museum.

"It is a sad, but I can honestly say a joyous moment for me," said Ferrus, who also travelled to the Netherlands last year to christen the vessel as she lay in the Damen yard at Flushing.

Van Schalkwyk said the Sarah Baartman was South Africa's first offshore environmental protection vessel.

"It will enable South Africa to be much better equipped to protect our marine resources," he said.

"This will enable us to make good on our promise to build an enforcement fleet that will be the envy of other countries."

He said the $19-million that the vessel cost was "a lot of money", but that it was a good investment.

The vessel, which will also be able to deal with emergencies at sea, has a helicopter landing pad and chopper refuelling facilities, a crane, an onboard hospital and is equipped to combat oil pollution.

With a range of 7 500 nautical miles and able to stay at sea for 45 days, she will carry 17 crew, four cadets and eight fishery inspectors.

Though she is currently captained by John Klopper, the chief officer, Amada Viljoen, is expected to step into the post within the next few months.

Head of the department's Marine and Coastal Management (MCM) section Horst Kleinschmidt said the very existence of the vessel would serve as a deterrent to poachers.

"We need to make it clear to people: don't start poaching," he said.

He said MCM's first objective would be to considerably increase its presence in the Southern Ocean and in particular around Prince Edward Island group, frequented by poachers targeting the lucrative and endangered Patagonian toothfish.

The Sarah Baartman would co-operate with the French, who were already patrolling the Crozier islands, and the Australians, who were patrolling the Heard and Macdonald islands.

"We are now on par with our neighbours in capacity. They are really enthusiastic about our new-found ability," he said.

He said the on-board fisheries inspectors were armed with handguns, and that MCM would look at more firepower if it was warranted.

However there had never been a poaching shootout in Southern Ocean waters.

The Sarah Baartman herself was also equipped with two "phenomenally powerful" water cannons, with a range of over 500 metres.

"She's ours now, she's fully equipped, she's ready, and she's going to go out right away," Kleinschmidt said. - Sapa