Australia’s state-of-the-art icebreaker has yet to complete a scientific voyage | Polarjournal
The Australian icebreaking vessel RSV Nuyina was comissioned to help make Australia a leader in Antarctic research. Photo: Knud E Hansen
The Australian icebreaking vessel RSV Nuyina was comissioned to help make Australia a leader in Antarctic research. Photo: Knud E Hansen

During its three years in operation, the 320-million-euro research vessel has been needed for other tasks. Now, concerns are starting to surface.

Australia is a leading Antarctic nation and wants to expand its capabilities to continue to be so.

That was the key message in a 20-year action plan for Antarctica that the Australian government released in 2022. Central to this goal was a new icebreaking vessel, described as “world class” and equipped with unique scientific capabilities: the RSV Nuyina.

But now, three years after the ship arrived in Australia, concerns are starting to appear. Since then, the vessel designed specifically for research has still not completed a voyage focused specifically on science, and it is not expected to do so until 2025.

“The [Australian Antarctic Division] is struggling to allow sufficient time on the ship to deliver marine science. This is beginning to (and could continue to) raise concerns within the scientific community,” a government report from February stated, according to ABC.

The keel of RSV Nuyina is heavily reinforced to break ice. Photo: Pete Hamsen, AAD
The keel of RSV Nuyina is heavily reinforced to break ice. Photo: Pete Hamsen, AAD

Too reliant on single vessel

The report was initially deemed too “sensitive” for public eyes but was later released after pressure from Tasmanian senator, Jonathan Duniam. It presents a number of points of criticism related to the RSV Nuyina.

Most notable is the fact that the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the government body in charge of Antarctic activities, is too reliant on the single vessel to complete all of its tasks. This leaves too little time for the RSV Nuyina to focus on the thing it was designed for: scientific research.

“Given Antarctic science is an important benefit that government sought from the investment in the RSV Nuyina, there may be a need to consider whether the single vessel model is going to achieve all that is required from government in the Australian Antarctic Program,” the report stated.

Since its launch, the vessel has completed several resupply missions in Antarctica and even a rescue operation. But, since one was canceled last year due to mechanical issues, not a single scientific voyage has been conducted.

The first one is expected to take place next year, when a mission to the Denman Glacier is scheduled.

The RSV Nuyina is 160,5 meters long, has space for 116 people, and can break ice at a speed of three knots. Photo: Knud E Hansen
The RSV Nuyina is 160,5 meters long, has space for 116 passengers, and can break ice at a speed of three knots. Photo: Knud E Hansen

State-of-the-art equipment

This means that many of the vessel’s state-of-the-art features have yet to be used.

The RSV Nuyina contains, for instance, a large moon pool (a hole in the bottom) for launching and retrieving sampling equipment and remotely operated vehicles. It also contains on-board scientific laboratories, and sonars that allow mapping of the sea floor.

Unique to the vessel, according to the engineering firm who designed it, is a “hybrid propulsion system that provides both the high power needed for icebreaking and silent running for science operations.”

The RSV Nuyina has also made an appearance on Australian stamps. Photo: Knud E Hansen
The RSV Nuyina has also made an appearance on Australian stamps. Photo: Knud E Hansen

The Hobart debacle

The concerns which surfaced with the government report are not even the first issues that the RSV Nuyina has faced in its relatively short lifespan. In the fall of 2023, a more costly one involving a bridge and a refueling station came to light.

Back then, the vessel, whose home base is in the city of Hobart, Tasmania, failed to be approved for passage under the Tasman Bridge which spans the city’s harbor. In the 1970s, a partial collapse of the bridge due to a ship collision took place, killing 12 people, so authorities are careful before allowing ships to pass. And, according the ABC, a computer simulation showed that the RSV Nuyina would hit the bridge in 4 out of 109 transfers. 

Thankfully, the AAD and its docks are located on the outer perimeters of the city so no passage under the bridge is needed to get there. But the only viable refueling station in the harbor is not.

This meant that instead of traveling 4 kilometers to refuel, the vessel would now have to travel 660 kilometers to a harbor on the other side of Tasmania. The price of this refueling operation was expected to be around 500.000 euros per year.

Plans were made for the RSV Nuyina to pass under the Tasman Bridge for refuelling but, in the end, this plan was not approved by Hobart's harbour master. Photo: Stephen Edmonds, Wikimedia Commons
Plans were made for the RSV Nuyina to pass under the Tasman Bridge for refuelling but, in the end, this plan was not approved by Hobart’s harbour master. Photo: Stephen Edmonds, Wikimedia Commons

A calm reply

Amidst these concerns, the AAD remains calm and collected. In a statement, a spokesman said that all issues raised in the report are already being addressed. Further, the spokesman pointed out that scientific work had been conducted during the vessel’s Antarctic resupply missions.

“The Nuyina has also assisted critical Australian Antarctic Program science activities, including sea floor mapping, the Southern Ocean plankton survey, the deployment of whale and krill monitoring devices and support for the Denman Terrestrial Campaign,” the spokesman said.

The government report, too, granted that it was “probable” that the AAD would be able to realize the RSV Nuyina’s anticipated benefits.

A way out of the trouble, which was, in fact, already mentioned in the 2022 government action plan, might be to lease other ice-strengthened vessels for Antarctic resupply missions. This would free the RSV Nuyina to do what the AAD invested 320 million euros to achieve: becoming a leader in Antarctic research.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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