The polar research and supply ship SA Agulhas has returned from its final polar voyage to Antarctica ahead of its retirement in April.
The members of the SANAE over-wintering team were present as the ship arrived back at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town on Saturday, after having departed for Antarctica on December 8 last year. Return to South Africa was supposed to have been on February 22, but due to inclement weather the return took a week longer than anticipated.
“The Agulhas had a good stretch; it is 32 years old,” said environmental affairs spokesman Zolile Nqayi. The ship made a total of 39 trips to Antarctica since 1978.
“This is the end of an era and we are all very sad,” said Henry Valentine, director of the South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP).
Whilst in Antarctica, a team from the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) collected data on space weather and trained graduates from other African countries, including Uganda. Sansa was interested in Antarctic research as the inward curving magnetic lines at the pole enable space particle research.
Other scientists brought back by the Agulhas conducted research on the level of carbon dioxide in the ocean and exploring the part it plays in the ocean and atmosphere. Another project involved studying ocean fronts – their depth, salinity and temperature.
The Agulhas is being replaced by the R1.3 billion SA Agulhas II, whose keel was laid down in Finland in February last year. The ship will be a multipurpose vessel that will operate as a supply, research and passenger ship as well as an icebreaker. The ice-strengthened vessel will be approximately 134 metres long, 23 metres wide and will accommodate a crew of 45 and some 100 researchers or passengers. In contrast, the SA Agulhas has a crew of 40 and can carry 98 researchers or passengers.
Unlike the SA Agulhas, the new vessel will also have facilities for carrying out oceanographic research and geological seabed surveys. Eight hundred square metres has been set aside for laboratories and on-deck research areas in addition to a 4000 cubic metre cargo hold. The ship will continuously monitor weather conditions for the South African weather services by deploying weather balloons and weather buoys during certain voyages.
The vessel will also operate internationally as a passenger ship for some 150 people and will feature a gym, library and small hospital. In addition, it will be able to carry and launch two Oryx helicopters. The ship will be able to spend several months at sea and will have a top speed of 14 knots. It will be able to travel through 1 metre thick ice at a speed of 5 knots, which is faster than the SA Agulhas.