Community: Next stop - southern ocean

Every year from late October through March, a special collection of vessels can be seen docked in Lyttelton.

Icebreakers, research vessels and supply ships from all around the world make Lyttelton their last port of call
on their long journey down to the Antarctic.

David Kennedy, Head of the Christchurch Antarctic Office, tells us more about the special nature of these vessels and Christchurch’s role as one of just five Antarctic Gateway Cities in the world.

Is there a long history of Antarctic voyaging from Ōtautahi?

Christchurch has been a gateway to Antarctica since Captain Robert Falcon Scott based his first Discovery expedition here in 1901.

Since then, our city has become an international basecamp for Antarctic science, research and supply programmes, with vessels representing New Zealand, USA, Italy, Korea, China and Russia all launching from
Lyttelton Port.

What kinds of ships might we see getting ready to head to Antarctica?

The most common ships are research and supply vessels, but there will often be visits from cargo vessels and sometimes specialised icebreakers, such as the US Coast Guard Cutter.

What’s the purpose of the various vessels?

Most of them are ‘combo’ vessels that can resupply Antarctic science stations as well as carry out a range of research projects relating to the oceans, wildlife and atmosphere. Regular research vessels you might spot in
Port include Laura Bassi from Italy, Araon from Korea and Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and Xue Long 2 from China.

What particular challenges do these ships face on their journeys?

Weather, distance and ice. The Southern Ocean is one of the wildest stretches of water on the planet, and Antarctica is 3,000 km away from Christchurch. Pack ice formed over the winter makes navigation difficult,
so at the beginning of summer, icestrengthened vessels are needed to break up ice that is up to 2.5 metres thick.

What’s the importance of Christchurch – and, of course, Lyttelton – as a gateway?

Pre-COVID, the Antarctic sector delivered $262 million annually in economic benefit to the Canterbury economy. Lyttelton Port plays a vital role in the supply chain to Scott Base and to the science undertaken in the
Southern Ocean. The engineering expertise and provedoring experience of Lyttelton companies is globally respected, and international programmes often comment on the warm welcome received from the Port and Lyttelton locals.

What do you personally love about Antarctica?

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Antarctica twice. I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the landscape and the eerie silence on the ice. I also got a real insight into the passion of international scientists who are working
together under the most extreme conditions to unlock secrets that could benefit humanity.

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