September 19, 2018 – The Royal Navy’s icebreaker and polar research ship HMS Protector is returning to the ice as summer returns to the frozen continent of Antarctica.
After several months enjoying the warm waters of South Africa, Madagascar and the central Indian Ocean, the Plymouth-based scientific vessel – used to chart poorly-mapped Antarctic waters, conduct environment studies and work alongside British and international scientists performing research into polar climate and wildlife – is back among the bergs.
HMS Protector is three years into a five-year mission. She is spending the Antarctic summer in and around the ice, and retreating to South Africa for the austral winter to undergo maintenance. She will then head either up the West African coast or into the Indian Ocean, using her state-of-the-art suite of sensors to produce highly-accurate charts for use by seafarers the world over.
Summer 2018 has been spent around the remote British territory of Diego Garcia, the only island in the Chagos chain where there’s human habitation.
Lying roughly half way between Sri Lanka and Madagascar, Diego Garcia is a major UK/US military base. Its waters had not been accurately surveyed for 180 years, prompting a ten-day concerted effort to rectify that fact.
The island is also famous for its wildlife. One group of HMS Protector’s sailors was lucky enough to see a pod of more than 20 curious dolphins. On Diego Garcia itself sailors and Royal Marines supported scientists researching green turtles, spending three consecutive nights assisting in capturing, satellite tagging and then releasing them.
The turtles – which can live up to 80 years – often needed four or five people to handle them due to their strength.
On the way back to South Africa, the ship paid a short visit to the French island of La Réunion which gave crew the chance to see an active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, link up with French sailors and tour the new French icebreaker, L’Astrolabe, designed to perform much the same mission as Protector.
After leaving Cape Town, HMS Protector struck out across the South Atlantic for the Falklands, which serve as her forward base when operating around the Antarctic peninsula, facing rough seas – waves of 20ft-30ft high at times.
To ensure the crew are ready for the rigors of living and operating in the polar region, they face an inspection and assessment by the Royal Navy’s principal training organization, FOST, before leaving the Falklands for the ice.
“Protector is well and truly on the way back to her Antarctic home ground – we’ve already seen the first iceberg of the season,” said Captain Matt Syrett, the ship’s commanding officer.
“The memories of a summer spent in tropical paradise are fading fast. The team is in fine spirits and ready for our cold weather training.
“We’ve now got our sights set firmly on the challenges awaiting us as we head back to the ice.”
Protector is not due back in Plymouth until the spring of 2020, although one third of her crew change places every few weeks to sustain her thousands of miles from home for extended periods.