HMS Protector completes first stage of Antarctic mission studying penguins


Author: Radina Koutsafti



Plymouth-based ship is on a five-year mission to research wildlife and climate change


© Royal © Royal Navy


The Navy’s sole Antarctic research ship has completed its first stint of the year, to support research into the penguin populace.


HMS Protector is on a five-year mission to support international research into wildlife, the changing climate and the shifting waters of Antarctica.


The ship’s Commanding Officer Captain Michael Wood said: “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.”

© Royal Navy

After studying penguins around the South Sandwich Islands, the survey ship moved deeper into the Antarctic region to 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 haven’t been updated in nearly a century.


Unfavourable sea conditions and grounded icebergs forced HMS 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 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 work in the South Orkneys, another far-flung, uninhabited British archipelago on the fringe of Antarctica.


Scientists found that Sunshine Glacier on Coronation Island – roughly 750 miles from the Falklands – 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 HMS Protector to survey while the weather abated sufficiently for the ship to scan the waters off the neighbouring island of Signy.


Supporting the work of the British Antarctic Survey, Captain Wood led a team landing on Signy to mark the beginning of the ‘summer season’.


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.


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, HMS 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.

Afterwards, the crew visited Spanish and Argentine bases bringing the curtain down on the first work period of the Antarctic summer. HMS Protector headed back to the Falklands to restock before returning to the snow and ice.