An icebreaker’s journey to Antarctica’s Great Southern Land

Written by Staff Writer

From a plane deck bathed in the white glow of the sunrise, Capt. François Morgain of Airbus looks towards the ship that has just brought him to Antarctica’s Great Southern Land.

On board is a team from Airbus, to film a media documentary about the life aboard the icebreaker Aurora Australis.

Some 5,500 miles (8,500 kilometers) across the Southern Ocean, from South America to the Australian continent of Tasmania, the ship is traversing a region known as the Melanesian trading route.

The arctic climate of this high continent, which extends for thousands of miles into the Antarctic, is as cold as 100 below zero Fahrenheit (minus 44 Celsius). At least for the Aurora Australis, temperatures regularly drop to minus 75 degrees Celsius.

Miraculously, its modern icebreaker was designed to withstand the winter’s ice. The ship has to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if needed, no matter how long it takes.

“It’s very difficult to get everybody from Europe to Australia, so part of our schedule is to head to this region and join up with some other ships,” Morgain explains.

A journey they’ve been taking since 2015, with a planned arrival at the Great Southern Land in August this year.

The Aurora Australis crew celebrates a successful landing. Credit: STAFF

Arctic winds tore a hole in one of the ship’s chains last month, according to co-author and archaeologist Vania Tekselis.

Her time at the Aurora Australis has been marked by a series of drills and preparation efforts that were essential to ensure the ship’s reliability in the Arctic.

“On one of the drills we were asked to look under the deck of the ship and put a few tugboats in a square position. The currents (are from the east to the west) so if you do that with your hands, it’s a good way to test for stability of the ship,” she explains.

One of the expedition’s two ice-breakers. Credit: STAFF

The Aurora Australis was once one of three ice-breakers tasked with cutting the route, but these days, three operate.

Following a partnership between the Aurora Australis, France’s Cercle de Théâtre magnitaire de Chamonix and the Aurora Australis Foundation, an important part of the journey was filmed.

The three ice-breaking ships all belonged to the French “SA12” class, built between 1992 and 1994. The Mirages had been built with the option of upgrading to an icebreaker, which was then replaced in 2008.

“The Mirages are very reliable, and we’re going to test to see how good they are,” says Morgain.

Time on board the ship – and in the freezing Antarctic sea – has certainly toughened them up.

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