The iconic orange ship, owned by P&O Maritime, was launched at Newcastle’s Carrington Slipways on 18 September 1989 by Mrs Hazel Hawke – wife of former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The ship entered Antarctic service in the 1989–90 season, with Australian Antarctic Division fisheries scientist, Dick Williams, the first Voyage Leader on her maiden voyage to Heard Island.
Since then the ship has enabled scientists to conduct critical research in Antarctica, the subantarctic region and the Southern Ocean. This includes two large marine surveys off East Antarctica in 1996 and 2006, focusing on the distribution and abundance of Antarctic krill, as well as ocean physics and chemistry. The resulting scientific papers fill numerous journal volumes.
The ship also played a key role in the International Polar Year, with Australian and international scientists conducting a census of Antarctic marine life that contributed to the recently published Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean (see In Brief).
In 2007 and 2012 the ship again carried international contingents of scientists into the sea ice zone to conduct highly detailed studies on the structure, thickness and snow properties of sea ice and their effects on sea ice algae and the marine ecosystem. Among other things, this research is helping to validate satellite measurements of sea ice thickness and extent that contribute to climate models.
The Aurora Australis has also facilitated the adventure of a lifetime for first-time expeditioners, as well as delivering critical cargo to Australia’s Antarctic and subantarctic stations. The ship can carry up to 700 tonnes of cargo and 1.1 million litres of fuel, essential for various building programs at the stations and Wilkins Runway, as well as ongoing station maintenance and operation.
Of course it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In 1998 and 1999 engine room fires broke out while the ship was in transit to Antarctica. The ship has also been beset a number of times as thick sea ice thwarted her 1.23m icebreaking capability. Most recently Aurora Australis was involved in the rescue of passengers from another beset ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy from Commonwealth Bay in 2014.
While a new ship with greater icebreaking, scientific and cargo capabilities is an exciting development for Australia’s Antarctic program, the eventual replacement of Aurora Australis will be tinged with nostalgia for the thousands of expeditioners who have become part of her history.
Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division
New icebreaker update
In July the Australian Government took the next step towards construction of a new Antarctic icebreaker to replace the 25 year old Aurora Australis, releasing a detailed Request for Tender to two prequalified companies.
The Request for Tender is seeking a ship that will have:
- the ability to break 1.65m thick ice while maintaining a speed of three knots
- a cargo capacity of 1200 tonnes
- accommodation for 116 expeditioners
- capacity to operate four light or two medium helicopters
- the endurance to support voyages of up to 90 days
- a medical facility that supports surgical, radiographic and telemedicine
- availability for 200 days of usage per season as part of the Antarctic program
The new icebreaker should be operating by the 2019–20 Antarctic season and will be based in Hobart.