HMS Protector Completes First Antarctic Mission

The Navy’s sole Antarctic research ship has completed her first stint of the year around the frozen continent – which has revealed the impact of global warning.
HMS Protector is on a five-year mission to support international research into wildlife, the changing climate and shifting waters of Antarctica and upholding the UK’s long-standing commitment to the region.

The Plymouth-based icebreaker has three concerted ‘work periods’ planned around the Antarctic Peninsula before autumn descends on the region and rules out her moving safely around numerous bases and through icy waters.

Her first stint which spanned the festive season into the first days of 2022 started with work around the South Sandwich Islands to support research into the penguin populace.

From there the distinctive red-white survey ship moved deeper into the Antarctic region to continue her scientific mission in some of the bleakest, most remote islands on the planet.

Naval charts of some of the waters around islands such as Southern Thule and the Cook Islands have not been updated in nearly a century – without any of the highly-accurate sensors and technology fitted to Protector herself or her small survey boats.

The challenge was made all the greater by unfavorable sea conditions and grounded icebergs, forcing Protector to spend two days sheltering inside a caldera – the hollowed-out innards of a volcano – waiting for a weather window to put a landing party ashore.

Whilst there the ship surveyed an uncharted portion on the west coast of Cook – the eastern part of the two islands forming the caldera – as her survey motorboat surveyed the east coast of Thule under the lee of glacial cliffs.

After crossing another 600 miles of the Scotia Sea – described by crew as “lively” – the ship got stuck into to work in the South Orkneys, another far-flung, uninhabited British archipelago on the fringe of Antarctica.

Sunshine Glacier on Coronation Island – roughly 750 miles from the Falklands and 350 from the Antarctic Peninsula – has retreated three quarters of a mile over the past 30 years as a result of global warming.

In doing so, it’s revealed uncharted waters in what is dubbed ‘Iceberg Bay’ for Protector to survey while the weather abated sufficiently for the ship to scan the waters off the neighboring island of Signy and found a dangerous shoal on the approach to Cummings Cove, having separately proved the presence of a dangerous rock in Borge Bay.

Supporting the work of the British Antarctic Survey, Protector’s Commanding Officer Captain Michael Wood led a team landing on Signy to mark the beginning of the ‘summer season’; the research station is only occupied in the austral summer. Sailors found no damage had been caused to the base by the harsh weather over the winter, ready for scientists to move into study penguins, petrels and the island’s rich biodiversity.

Signy was the first in a series of bases and research centres the ship has called in on: Base Y (Horseshoe Island) – built in 1955 and abandoned five years later, so it’s a time capsule of a bygone era of Antarctic exploration – the large BAS facility at Rothera for Christmas – where Covid precautions meant the sailors couldn’t mix with the scientists to join in festivities – and the Argentinian research base at San Martin.

In the Lemaire Channel there was the opportunity for the 70 sailors and Royal Marines to get their cameras out. Despite near-perfect weather for the passage, Protector found navigating the strait tricky with significant concentrations of ice and icebergs which almost completely blocked the southern entrance.

Deception Island – a flooded caldera of a still-active volcano – provided more photo opportunities and visits led by Protector’s second-in-command Commander Thomas Boeckx to Spanish and Argentine bases brought the curtain down on the first work period of the Antarctic summer and Protector headed back to the Falklands to restock/resupply before returning to the snow and ice.

“We’ve completed the first of our three work packages as part of Operation Austral and exceeded all the objectives we set by some measure. It’s been a far-flung, survey-intense and photographic-rich circumnavigation of UK territories in the Scotia Sea,” said Captain Wood.

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