THE SA Agulhas II, South Africa’s new ice-breaking polar supply and research ship, arrived in Port Elizabeth yesterday after concluding research operations in the Southern and Antarctic oceans.
The new vessel – which replaces the SA Agulhas, which has been operating for more than three decades – will be docked in Port Elizabeth harbour until Sunday, before returning to Cape Town. It will be open to the public tomorrow.
The ship is carrying 49 scientists, mainly marine biologists, physical oceanographers, chemical oceanographers and biodiversity oceanographers. They are largely from Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
There is also a crew of 35 on board, who have all returned from a 26-day expedition in the Southern and Antarctic oceans.
The previous ship was replaced by the Environmental Affairs Department earlier this year because it carried old and outdated technology.
Department communications director Zolile Nqayi said the arrival of the new vessel in the city was historic because the first ship had usually returned to Cape Town after completing its missions in the Southern Ocean.
"This is a goodwill visit because this ship belongs to the whole country, not just Cape Town. The Southern Ocean is not that far out of the way so we believed it was the right time to bring her to Port Elizabeth,” he said.
Nqayi said the ship would welcome marine sciences degree students from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and Rhodes University and more than 60 pupils from five disadvantaged schools in Port Elizabeth today.
"Many people out there do not think of this [marine and coastal sciences] as a possible career. We want these children to come and learn more about the ocean and about the technology so that more will think about becoming scientists,” he said.
Environmental Affairs chief director of oceans and coastal research Andre Share said the department wanted to generate more scientists as South Africa was lagging behind in terms of the number of people entering the field.
"However, while we are generating fewer scientists compared to other countries, we are still on par with the type of research we are doing here, which proves that the level we produce here is very high, despite limited resources and skills,” Share said.
He said the new ship was designed to carry out both scientific research and supply the South African research stations on Marion Island and Prince Edward Island in the Southern and Antarctic oceans.
The SA Agulhas II was working on four research programmes on its maiden voyage: marine biodiversity, ecosystem health, ecosystem functioning, and operational and observational oceanography, he said.
"The marine biodiversity means we are assessing the South African coastline and territorial waters. With ecosystem health we are looking at marine top predators like seabirds, whales, sharks and seals, all of which are good indicators of global change, including climate change.”
He said studies were also being conducted on climate variability in southern Africa, which was why there was a team from the SA Weather Service on board.
SA Agulhas II project manager Alan Robertson said the vessel was the first ship of its kind to be built under the new passenger ship rules of 2010.
"It is able to carry passengers as well as various types of cargo such as helicopters and dangerous liquids like polar diesel and helicopter fuel. Then it is also an ice breaker and it has technology to protect the occupants in case of emergencies like a fire breaking out,” he said.
Robertson said the vessel had two engine rooms and two propulsion rooms in case a fire broke out.
The 135m long and 22m wide diesel electric ship weighs about 13500 tons and has an engine power of 12000kW. It is capable of breaking ice 1m thick at 8km/h.
"It has 2½ times more power than the previous ship and is more fuel-efficient.
"The previous ship had no option but to navigate around large patches of ice, which set it back two to three days sometimes. [This ship] is able to travel through the ice, saving time and fuel,” Robertson said.
The state-of-the-art technology includes a moon pool, drop keel and world-class laboratories. The vessel was built by STX in Finland, which specialises in the construction of ice-breakers and passenger ferries.
Seabird researcher Linda Clokie, a former dolphin curator at Bayworld, urged the public to visit the vessel before it returned to Cape Town.
Clokie, who is on Marion Island studying penguins, said she had sailed to the island on the SA Agulhas on its final voyage in April. She will return to the mainland in May next year on the new vessel.
"People in PE will not have many opportunities to see a ship like this. It is a scientific ship like no other,” she said.