The Royal Navy’s sole icebreaker HMS Protector today left Plymouth for the Antarctic – her first visit to the frozen continent since 2019. With the UK about to be the focus of international efforts to tackle climate change as it hosts the UN COP26 conference in Glasgow, the unique survey/research ship will continue her work supporting scientists from around the world study the impact of global warming. A major refit – the most comprehensive in the ship’s history – confined her to Middlesbrough for much of 2020.
She ‘warmed up’ for work in sub-zero temperatures by sailing into the Arctic in June to practise crunching ice, venturing further north than any Royal Navy vessel within recent memory – just 1,050 kilometres from the top of the world. On this deployment, however, her work initially will be concentrated in the warmer climes of two of Britain’s South Atlantic territories: Ascension Island – In the middle of the ocean between Brazil and Angola – and, 800 miles to the southeast, St Helena.
Some of the stretches of water around the remote islands have not been surveyed in 200 years, so Admiralty Charts – used not just by the Royal Navy, but seafarers the world over – need updating courtesy of the latest sonar and surveying equipment Protector carries. The ship will begin her polar work in December at the height of the austral summer – temperatures can creep just above freezing – visiting UK and international research stations peppered around the British Antarctic Territory, and extensively surveying the seabed here.
In heading into both polar circles and crossing the Equator – an event marked by a colourful, traditional nautical ceremony (‘Crossing the Line’) – in a single year, the ship’s company believe they could be making Royal Navy history. HMS Protector is a Royal Navy ice patrol ship built in Norway in mid 2000. As MV Polarbjørn (Norwegian: polar bear) she operated under charter as a polar research icebreaker and a subsea support vessel. In 2011, she was chartered as a temporary replacement for the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance and was purchased by the British Ministry of Defence in early September 2013.