SA Agulhas II sets sail for the 57th Antarctica expedition

Friday, December 8, 2017

Not long after the SA Agulhas II set off on the International Indian Ocean Expedition, the vessel has once again left the shores of Cape Town and will sail for two weeks on a scientific research expedition to Antarctica.

Will Jelbert from the Department of Environmental Affairs, who is heading the expedition, is leading a team of 10 people with different skill sets on a voyage that will see the vessel replenishing supplies to the SANAE IV, which is one of South Africa’s three research bases in Antarctica.

Jelbert is also the expedition’s team doctor.

The Antarctica -- which is a virtually uninhabited, ice covered continent on the South Pole -- has, due to its below-freezing weather conditions and peace, become a haven for scientific research with many countries having research stations on it.

South Africa maintains bases on three locations. One is Marion Island, which is part of the Prince Edward Islands, while the other is Gough Island, which is part of the Tristan da Cunha chain of islands, where South Africa has had a weather station since the 1950s.

The SANAE IV base is located in Vesleskarvet, Queen Maud Land on the Antarctica.

Jelbert said that every year, the Agulhas II sails down to the continent as part of the South African National Antarctic Programme.

“The [SA Agulhas II] resupplies these bases every year and there are teams that man them all year round.

“The basic purpose is for scientific research and to maintain our bases out there. So I am part of a team of 10 people and we will be staying there the whole year,” he said.

He said while the SA Agulhas II will return to South Africa in March next year, he will stay on with his team until 2019.   

Jelbert said after a two-week voyage, the research and polar vessel, which was built in 2012 and dedicated to the memory of the late activist and songstress Miriam Makeba, will hit the Ice Shelf.

The Ice Shelf is a thick floating platform of ice, or ice ridge, that surrounds Antarctica.

He said cargo will be unloaded from the vessel and transported from the Ice Shelf to the SANAE IV research base at the Antarctica, which is 120 kilometres inland.

“There are guys who will be maintaining the base, who will be installing water treatment systems,” he said.  

He said South Africa was one of the original 12 countries to sign the Antarctic Treaty System back in 1959, which paved the way for the country to set up a research base onsite.

“The whole point of it is to make it a place of peace and scientific research. So there are no military bases, no weapons testing of any kind. There is very strict environmental controls on tourists and of course on research that is conducted there.

“We have got very strict environmental controls on how the base is run, and how the generators that are working there must operate,” Jelbert said.

Antarctica research key to understanding global changes

While Jelbert and his team of 10 will spend over a year in Antarctica, the department has also established a project collaborating with other countries, like Norway and Germany, in looking at land-breeding marine predators as bio-indicators of change in Antarctica.

The research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is vital to understanding natural variability, the processes that govern global change and the role of humans in the earth and climate system. The potential for new knowledge to be gained from future Antarctic science is considerable.

Overall, there are 120 people on board the vessel consisting of 30 crew members and about 90 scientists.

Jelbert said research scientists on site SANAE IV were busy with all sorts of research – from oceanography, marine biology, climatology, meteorology and space science, among other topics. 

Antarctica job opportunities

The expedition has also created work opportunities for Cape Town locals.  

Ashley Mikkelson from Athlone in Cape Town, a fire technician for DCM electronics, said when the Agulhas hits the Antarctica base, he and his colleagues will do maintenance work on the gas suppression systems, fire alarm systems and electrical work at the SANAE base.  

The company Mikkelson works for is a sub-contracted company to another engineering firm.

“We do maintenance for the base. We replace old electrical systems with new ones. I do the gas suppression system for the fire and safety for the engine rooms.”

This is the second time Mikkelson is going to the Antarctica.

“There are a lot of positives that I have taken from the whole experience. I am from a very poor background but I work hard. This is something that is out of this world for me – something that people hardly get to experience,” he said. –

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