Launched in September 1989, the RSV Aurora Australis was purpose built for the Australian Antarctic program by P&O Polar. The ship was designed by Wartsila Marine Industries of Finland and built at the Carrington Slipways in Newcastle.

For many decades, the Aurora Australis was the main lifeline to Australia's Antarctic and sub-Antarctic research stations, and the central platform of Australia's Antarctic and Southern Ocean scientific research. It concluded its Australian Antarctic service in 2020. At the end of the 2019-20 season, the Australian Antarctic Division chartered the MPV Everest while Australia's new icebreaker, the RSV Nuyina, was under construction.

The Aurora Australis was named for the southern lights that can be seen in Antarctica and Tasmania. An aurora is caused when solar winds in the upper atmosphere and the Earth's magnetic field interact together, resulting in rainbow colours in the night sky. The new icebreaker RSV Nuyina continues this tradition. The word nuyina means southern lights in palawa kani, the language of Tasmanian Aborigines.


  • Research Survey Vessel (RSV)
  • Lloyds Register Ice Class 1A Super icebreaker
  • overall length: 94.91 metres
  • overall breadth: 20.35 metres
  • capacity: 6574 tons (gross)
  • capacity: 3911 tons (dead weight)
  • 4-ton SWL gantry crane stern
  • engine: 2 medium speed diesels coupled through a reduction gearbox and hydraulic clutches driving a single controllable-pitch propeller (CPP)
  • maximum speed: 16 knots
  • cargo hold capacity: 1790 cubic metres, with deck capacity for 18 TEUS 700 ton cargo with maximum bunkers
  • cargo capacity: 600 cubic metres of general cargo plus 40 containers
  • 2 forklifts; 5- and 2-ton SWL
  • 3 helicopters housed in hangar; helideck at stern
  • 2 Gilson winches, 2 trawl winches, 2 Hiab cranes (SWL 5-ton) for marine science. Stern ramp and towed sonar winch.
  • 140 persons including: 24 crew, 116 passengers in 1, 2, 3 and 4 berth cabins.

The Aurora Australis was well equipped for marine science research with a commercial-sized trawl deck and a hydroacoustic system to help researchers study Southern Ocean organisms such as krill. It also had a general purpose wet lab for processing samples, five multi-purpose laboratories, hydrographic laboratory, fish freezer, meteorological laboratory, and a scientific work room.

On a 6 week voyage, the ship’s kitchen could go through 4,500 eggs, 1,000 kg of potatoes and 280 L of ice cream. The ship was able to produce up to 45,000 L of fresh water per day for use on board for both drinking and other uses. Expeditioners were accommodated in small cabins that sleep three or four people on bunk beds. The beds fold away into couches to save space, and each cabin had its own bathroom and toilet. The ship also had a gym, library and recreation areas. Everybody ate together in a large communal mess.

Key Antarctic voyages

Ship travel in polar regions often involves challenging conditions. A sailor’s worst nightmare became reality at 2.25 am on 22 July 1998 when fire broke out in the engine room of the Aurora Australis while deep within the ice. A quick response from passengers and crew minimised the danger, and the ship made it safely back to port and on to Newcastle for repairs.

Following repairs, the Aurora Australis sailed again only to encounter more unforeseen problems with propeller damage and a lengthy besetment in the ice.

Towards the end of the season, a second fire in the engine room occurred. However, the ship returned safely to Fremantle.

Epic record

After a record 31 years of Antarctic service with the Australian Antarctic program, the Aurora Australis will always have a special place in the heart of expeditioners. With its bright orange colour, the ship was affectionately called the 'Orange Roughy'. It has carried more than 14,000 expeditioners on over 150 scientific research and resupply voyages.