Gentoo Penguin and HMS Protector

The Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS Protector has completed a scientific and conservation mission to the Antarctic.
The ship covered 7,000 nautical miles during its annual foray in the frozen continent, helping scientific research and environmental efforts in one of the world’s most remote and inhospitable regions.

The mission – known as Operation Austral – upholds the UK’s commitment to the Antarctic Treaty, protecting this precious place from harm.

Commanding Officer of HMS Protector, Captain Tom Weaver said: “We are reminded every day by the stunning wildlife and environment that surrounds us. Operating in Antarctica is a rare privilege.

“I’m delighted that we were able to use Protector’s many capabilities to support Antarctic research and uphold the UK’s role within the Antarctic Treaty system.”

During the deployment, Protector was joined by two University of Portsmouth Professors who collected water and rock samples which will contribute to understanding the human impact that increasing levels of shipping and tourism are having on this delicate region.

Sailors delivered 4.5 tonnes of conservation supplies to Port Lockroy and Detaille Island to help UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) members complete structural works on the historic buildings there.

The Plymouth-based ship eventually delivered aviation fuel to The British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) logistics center at Rothera, which is essential for supporting their two aircraft that shuttle scientists to remote field study sites.

Two penguin scientists from Oceanites joined Protector and researched over five penguin colonies counting over 10,000 penguins evaluating vital research on Antarctic penguin populations in support of climate science.

While surveying Antarctic waters, HMS Protector observed wildlife, recording data on species, numbers, behaviors and locations.

During the latest survey, the ship documented 74 fur seals, 26 sei whales, 161 humpback whales, 25 fin whales, 18 killer whales, and even one reported sighting of an albino whale.

Continuing her conservation work, HMS Protector contributed to preserving the pristine Antarctic environment by collecting three tonnes of waste leftover from previous missions at Brabant Island.

Furthermore, the ship recovered 1.8 tonnes of stores for UKAHT as part of their heritage conservation work.

The deployment also focused on updating charts and improving navigational safety of Antarctic waters, with Protector surveying and collecting over 1,500 nautical miles of data using their Multibeam Echo Sounder (MBES).

The ship also surveyed more than 33 square nautical miles of UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) priority areas.

Protector’s four Drake Passage transits during the season were remarkably uneventful for a notoriously wild stretch of water, and she also enjoyed navigating through narrow transits in Antarctica including Lemaire Channel (also known as Kodak Alley for its stunning scenery) and Neptune’s Bellows – the entrance to Deception Island which is formed from a sunken volcano caldera.

Throughout the deployment, Protector embarked seven personnel from UKAHT, three Mountain Leaders from the Royal Marines, two penguin counters from Oceanities, two professors from Portsmouth University, two University Students from Cambridge University, one Captain from the Canadian Coast Guard, one Hydrographic Officer from the Royal Australian Navy, one photographer from the Royal Navy Photography Branch, one Hydrographic Metrological specialist from the New Zealand Navy and one award-winning composer, sound and recording artist.

The ship’s First Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander Phil Boak said: “Having recently stepped on board HMS Protector after a short stint on the RRS Sir David Attenborough, it was great to see how the Royal Navy operates in the Antarctic.

“Being deployed over February 2024 was particularly poignant, as this coincided with the 80th anniversary of Operation Tabarin, the secret British mission to Antarctica during the Second World War which laid the foundations for the British Antarctic Survey.”