Building an Antarctic gateway

Hobart around 1840 was a world centre for Antarctic activity. On top of its status as the busiest southern whaling and sealing port, Hobart and the Lieutenant-Governor, John Franklin (himself an Arctic explorer), hosted the French and British Antarctic exploring expeditions led respectively by Dumont d’Urville and James Clark Ross. Seventy years later Roald Amundsen came here to report to the world that he had reached the South Pole, and Douglas Mawson used Hobart’s ‘splendid harbour’ as his staging post for the Antarctic, as he did again in 1930.

For 50 years after that, Hobart seemed to fall off the Antarctic map. Australia’s modern Antarctic programme was based in Melbourne from the late 1940s until 1981. Hobart got the occasional Antarctic ship visit, but Melbourne was the centre of activity. As recently as the 1980–81 season Melbourne was the departure and arrival point for all seven voyages (though Nanok S called into Hobart on its way south to fix the ship’s stove!).

Hobart’s change of fortunes began with the opening of the new Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) headquarters in 1981. The benefits to Tasmania of the ‘Antarctic economy’ were immediate and significant, with an influx of staff from Melbourne augmented with local recruitment. From the 1981–82 summer, ships, stations and summer field stations were refuelled and provisioned in Hobart.

Soon afterwards CSIRO’s Fisheries and Oceanography divisions (now amalgamated and incorporating atmospheric sciences as CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research) were established on the Hobart waterfront. In 1982 the city had a new Antarctic headquarters, that of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

In succeeding years new Antarctic bodies based in Hobart included the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies (1989), the Australian Antarctic Foundation (1990) and the former Cooperative Research Centre for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (1991). Since then two more international bodies have come to the city — secretariats for the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs in 1997 and the Agreement on Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels in 2005.

Since 1980, when Antarctic researchers in Hobart were just a small group of cosmic ray physicists at the University of Tasmania and a handful of individual scientists, Hobart has become one of the most significant centres for Antarctic and Southern Ocean science in the world, with two-thirds of Australia’s Antarctic scientists based in Hobart. Antarctic science is the beneficiary of the resulting collaboration and synergies.

In 1993, recognising the economic benefits that Hobart as an Antarctic centre brought to Tasmania, the Tasmanian Government established the Office of Antarctic Affairs (now Antarctic Tasmania) to promote Antarctic activities in the Tasmanian community. In the same year it joined private Tasmanian interests to establish the Tasmanian Polar Network, seeking to promote and support the island’s growing community of Antarctic and Southern Ocean businesses.

Nella Dan, Thala Dan, Nanok S, Lady Franklin and later Icebird, were among the first Australian-chartered Antarctic vessels operating out of Hobart’s magnificent deep water harbour (which Amundsen once described as ‘almost ideal… large and remarkably well protected’). In 1990 came a new player, with Hobart as its home port — Aurora Australis, the Australian-built icebreaker and research ship. Hobart is the home port for the French Antarctic Program (IPEV), and L’Astrolabe is a familiar sight on Princes Wharf. American, Chinese, Russian and Italian icebreakers also visit, as do international Antarctic tour ships. In the 2005-06 season seven polar vessels called into Hobart, some for multiple visits.

From 1981 until March 2006, 190 Australian research and international research voyages steamed south out of Hobart, carrying some 10,000 expeditioners. Almost 800 people now work in Hobart in a wide range of public organisations engaged in Antarctic research, education, conservation, policy, logistics support, provedoring, clothing and communications. These people are supported by a Tasmanian-centred industry supplying almost $AUD50 million worth of Antarctic and cold climate goods and services each year.

Hobart’s reputation as a leading international ‘gateway port’ is undergoing a new transformation. In 2004 the first stage of a proposed Australia-Antarctica air service was implemented with the departure from Hobart of two cargo aircraft for service within Antarctica. From 2007–08 Hobart will also offer a regular Tasmania-to-Antarctica air service, with long-range aircraft flying regularly to Antarctica.

Hobart’s Antarctic cultural attractions have been greatly enhanced by the opening of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s new dedicated Antarctic exhibition, Islands to Ice: The Great Southern Ocean and Antarctica. Other public collections in the city house a wealth of Antarctic and Southern Ocean specimens, relics, equipment, artworks, documents and historical photographs. Hobart’s Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens features the unique Subantarctic Plant House, where plants from Southern Ocean islands are displayed in a climatically-controlled environment.

Leading-edge Tasmanian technologies and expertise developed for Australia’s Antarctic programme and widely exported, include iconic Wallhead ‘apples’ (demountable lightweight fibreglass huts); Sonardata’s award-winning fisheries acoustics software; and Helicopter Resources, with over 200 helicopter deployments in the Antarctic since 1975.

Less obvious benefits to the Tasmanian community include the reinforcement of Tasmania’s clean, green image by its association with white Antarctica. There is also the steady flow-through of Antarctic expeditioners including highly skilled scientists, professionals, adventurers and trades and technical workers, many of whom choose Tasmania as their permanent home. Tasmania’s thriving local Antarctic community finds expression, and a high profile, in the annual Midwinter Festival.

BEN GALBRAITH, General Manager, Antarctic Tasmania