Penguin on the Antarctic continent adorning the side of the vessel

A tour of the SA Agulhas II

SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town
SA Agulhas II berthed in Cape Town

When the opportunity arises to go aboard a ship, we like to take it. Our most recent ship tour was of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior vessel. In celebration of World Oceans Day on 8 June, the Department of Environmental Affairs opened the SA Agulhas II polar research vessel to the public, and we popped down to the V&A Waterfront to see her.

The SA Agulhas II replaces the SA Agulhas, now in use as a training vessel by SAMSA. The SA Agulhas has been in service for many years, and was recently chartered by the organisers of The Coldest Journey to transport the personnel and machinery to Antarctica before the winter.

The SA Agulhas II was built in Finland at a cost of R1,3 billion, and is state of the art as far as safety features and redundancy is concerned. She has two completely separate main engines, and is capable of continuing underway if one engine room floods. The decks and outdoor staircases of the ship are heated to prevent ice build up, and her hull is capable of pushing through one metre thick ice at a speed of nearly 10 kilometres per hour. She will service Marion Island, Gough Island, and the SANAE IV base on the Antarctic continent.

Tony on the helicopter pad
Tony on the helicopter pad

The ship has room for two helicopters, with a large helipad and a hangar in which the choppers can be housed with their blades folded down. The hangar’s walls are heavily fire proofed, and look like a couch or quilt. The ship can carry 100 scientists and a crew of 45. The accommodation is lovely, with every cabin having natural light. I was ready to run away to become a polar explorer after seeing the cabins, but when we stepped out on deck into the freezing wind (remember, the ship was still at her berth in Cape Town) I changed my mind.

There are eight permanent laboratories on board, and six containerised ones which can be lifted on and off the ship depending on what experiments are to be performed. Members of the scientific personnel spoke to us about some of the work that is done on board, including sampling the carbon dioxide content of water at various depths and locations (the levels are affected by global warming), and collection of plankton in special devices that enable the scientists to measure the fecundity of a particular part of the ocean. Tony and I kind of hoped that the intern who told us that they give that information to fishing company I&J was joking or wrong, but sadly I suspect he wasn’t.

A CTD water sampler hanging over the moon pool
A CTD water sampler hanging over the moon pool

In the centre of the ship is a moon pool – just like a James Bond movie – through which instrumentation can be lowered into the ocean. It’s essentially a hole all the way through the hull, surrounded by the ship. The advantage of this is that it won’t ice over, and there is no chance of a heavy piece of machinery hung over the side of the ship causing problems of balance. There is a large door in the side of the ship through which instruments can be sent, a feature shared with the old SA Agulhas, but during long experiments it’s possible that the ship gets iced in and the instruments crushed. The device hanging over the moon pool in the photograph above is a CTD, or conductivity, temperature, depth water sampler. It measures those three variables at different depths by taking water into the cylindrical Niskin bottles that make up the array. These close at predefined depths, and the water thus obtained can be analysed on board.

The ship has thrusters and multi-directional propellors that enable her to move in almost any direction, rotate on the spot, and hold a position with incredible accuracy for hours on end, even in unfavourable sea condtions.

I was amazed by this ship, but also worried by her, half waiting for something to go wrong. We have a very sad habit in South Africa of completely dropping the ball environmentally (I’m thinking of the fisheries patrol boats gathering dust at the quay in Simon’s Town while the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries goes on fraudulent trips and accepts bribes), and squandering technology that could otherwise be used for great good. My hope is that the recognition from other nations that this is a special, one of a kind ship with capabilities unmatched by many other vessels will apply a form of peer pressure to keep the powers that be from wasting the SA Agulhas II’s capabilities. The scientists and crew who we spoke to on board are passionate, dedicated people. I hope they will be well served by those who set the maintenance budgets, scheduling and priorities of this special ship.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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