Maiden trip down south for Agulhas II

The new polar research vessel SA Agulhas II embarked on a 26 day shakedown cruise to the edge of the ice shelf in Antarctica yesterday afternoon.
Built in Finland and having arrived in its home port of Cape Town on May 3, the purpose of the shakedown cruise will be to test all ship systems under full operational conditions and also to train researchers.  The SA Agulhas II takes over from the 34 year-old SA Agulhas as South Africa’s new Antarctic research and supply vessel, supporting and undertaking research in Antarctica and on Marion and Gough Islands. The elder ship, which recently returned from her final cruise to the Antarctic, was originally designed as a supply ship with very limited scientific capability.
The newer ship, at 134 meters, is significantly bigger than the ship she is replacing. While the number of passengers carried (100) is similar, the new ship has a vastly increased scientific capability, with eight permanent laboratories. Other special research facilities include a 2.4 m x 2.4 m Moon Pool, that extends through to the ship’s bottom. This allows deployment and recovery of sampling devices when working in the pack ice. Another feature is the Drop Keel, a device that houses a variety of sound transducers.
Ashley Johnson, Director for Oceans Research at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Chief Scientific Officer for the cruise, explained that a wide variety of vertical and towed probes, nets and underwater photographic equipment will be deployed and their associated onboard processing systems will be fully tested.
“We need to know what her capabilities are,” Johnson said, “to test whether the equipment has been fitted properly and whether the measurements are as accurate as possible.” An important objective will be to enter the winter pack ice (a floating mass of compacted ice fragments) and to test the ship’s propulsion systems under Antarctic conditions. All previous ice tests were carried out in the Baltic Sea, where only thin ice was encountered and the density differed to that found in 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. The SA Agulhas II is more powerful than her predecessor, with the ability to break one meter thick ice at ten knots.
The maiden cruise will also allow the ship’s personnel, some of which have only recently joined the ship, to undergo full operational training. Apart from testing equipment, the shakedown cruise also includes a multi disciplinary program to measure both oceanographic and biological parameters that characterise the state of the Southern Ocean in the region of interest to South Africa.
A group of 49 marine scientists and honours students from the Department of Environmental Affairs, South African Weather Service, University of Cape Town, The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University will be taking part in the trip. A few scientists from France and the USA will also be on board.
Another first for this cruise is that it is being done in winter, whilst previous trips went down to Antarctica in the summer time. This, according to Johnson, allows scientists to note the differences in the ocean between winter and summer time.  ”That is why we are trying to keep it as multi-disciplinary as possible, measuring simple things like the smallest creatures, isoPlanktons, all the way through to the bigger ones like seals,” clarified Johnson.
“We’re also trying to understand the physics of the ocean, the chemistry of the ocean, as well as the atmosphere or the air above it. The two are linked, we can’t separate them. We’re fostering a new era called earth systems science whereby we’re saying you cannot exclude the one form the other. One plays around with the other, there is an interaction between the two.”
Leaving Cape Town, the Agulhas II hopes to hit the ice at about 55 – 58 degrees south after ten days of sailing, but will stop short of actually entering the Antarctic Circle. After a brief stay, she will then cut across to Marion and Prince Edward Islands, situated in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean. These islands belong to South Africa and Johnson says “it is of national interest that we go there.”
The southern ocean has much less data coverage than the rest of the worlds’ oceans as a result of the harsh environment and remoteness.  ”From a strategic African point of view, it is important that we fill those data gaps. Because the more ocean data we get, the better our projections for the future,” Johnson added, “A lot of the climate projections are based on atmosphere or data they’re collected from the air, there is not a lot of ocean data.”
The marine scientists also aim to increase their understanding on how the oceanographic conditions and topography influences hunting by top predators breeding at Prince Edward Islands. On its way back, Agulhas II will stop in Port Elizabeth and hold two public open days on August 3 and 4, 2012.
She will sail back to the Mother City on August 6.