Naming Australia's icebreaker

The southern lights over Mawson station.
nuyina is a Tasmanian Aboriginal word meaning 'Southern Lights'. (Photo: Peter Layt)

Origin and meaning of RSV Nuyina

Nuyina is a Tasmanian Aboriginal word meaning ‘Southern Lights’. It is pronounced noy‑yee‑nah (listen to an audio pronunciation).

The Southern Lights, also known as aurora australis, are an atmospheric phenomenon formed over Antarctica that reaches northwards to light up Australian – and particularly Tasmanian – skies. Australia’s current long serving icebreaker the RSV Aurora Australis bears the name of the Southern Lights, while the first Australian Antarctic ship, Sir Douglas Mawson’s SY Aurora was named after the same phenomenon.

The name RSV Nuyina continues this theme and forms another chapter in the story of connection between Australia and Antarctica, which has played out historically over the past century and geologically over a much longer time frame, continually watched over by the dancing green curtains of light.

RSV Nuyina recognises the long connection that Tasmanian Aboriginal people have with the evocative Southern Lights, to which they gave a name in their language. Tasmanian Aboriginal people were the most southerly on the planet during the last ice age. The adaptability and resilience of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who travelled in canoes to small islets in the Southern Ocean, are qualities emulated by our modern-day Antarctic expeditioners as they travel south.

The ship name was suggested by Australian schoolchildren through the ‘Name our Icebreaker’ competition, which was designed to engage Australian students and expand their understanding of Antarctica, its environment, climate, history and Australia’s role there.

Aboriginal language was the inspiration for a fifth of all the valid ship names submitted by Australian children. In many of the competition entries, students spoke of their desire for reconciliation and recognition of Australian Aborigines. Using an Aboriginal name for the new ship would acknowledge all the children who wanted to recognise the interwoven history of Aboriginal people and the great southern land – Antarctica.

palawa kani is the language spoken by Tasmanian Aborigines today. It draws on extensive historical and linguistic research of written records and spoken recordings, and Aboriginal cultural knowledge. Not enough remains of any of the original six to 12 original languages to form a full language today, so palawa kani combines authentic elements from many of these languages. It flourishes in Aboriginal community life, with three generations of children having grown up learning it, and features increasingly in public life, including in gazetted Tasmanian place names.