Estonian-led Antarctic expedition sets sail

Admiral Bellingshausen at Sillamäe.
Admiral Bellingshausen at Sillamäe. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

An Estonian-led expedition to Antarctica broke anchor at Tallinn harbor Sunday night, setting sail for the southern hemisphere in the coming days, according to a report on ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera".

The voyage of the Admiral Bellingshausen, a 24-meter, Dutch-built ketch, marks the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica, or its ice shelf, by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, at the time a Captain in the Imperial Russian Navy, and a Baltic German native of Saaremaa.

The ship is to be seen off by President Kersti Kaljulaid from Saaremaa on Wednesday, but made her first stages a visit first to the northern Estonian coastal town of Sillamäe, followed by Helsinki on Saturday, and Tallinn on Sunday.

The Admiral Bellingshausen also took on board Russian polar explorer Viktor Boyarsky while in Tallinn.

After leaving the Estonian capital, the first port of call was the historical Russian naval island base at Kronstadt, just off St Petersburg, whence von Bellingshausen started his historic voyage.

ERR's Priit Kuusk was on board, and had a minor mishap when opening an oven door in the ship's galley, getting a lapful of potatoes and mushrooms for his troubles.

"Thank God, it wasn't soup or hot broth - it would have landed on my lap," said Kuusk of the incident.

The Admiral Bellingshausen, which weighs 95 tons, was making a fair wind at the time, around 16 m/s (just over 30 Knots) according to the ship's captain, Indrek Lepp.

"She really cuts through the waves when compared with a plastic-hulled craft," Captain Lepp said of the Bellingshausen, whose hull is constructed of metal.

Crew member Karolina Vaino, a first year at the Estonian Maritime Academy in Tallinn, is going along to take samples of pollen, water and microplastics while on the voyage, for researchers at the University of Tartu.

"I've been sailing before, though only for a week, and even then in calm weather. But this is something different, and very interesting," said Vaino, of her experience so far.

Antarctica a model for the rest of the world

Viktor Boyarsky, who has travelled to both poles and led commerical trips there, noted the importance of their destination in today's world, both in political and environmental terms.

"Antarctica can serve as a model for all humanity today. It is a continent without national borders. It is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which has been in existence for 60 years. This is a superb document, which gives Antarctica to the scientists, not to the military," Boyarsky noted.

"Industrialists are forbidden to extract raw materials there, and there is a freedom of expression and a general example that should be emphasized. Maybe some politicians will understand; similarly, there are lessons to be learned regarding the Arctic. The situation is much worse in the Arctic, which is a collection of contradictions," he added.

The Admiral Bellingshausen will not arrive in Antarctica until January 2020, and will be the subject of a TV documentary. She will make further Baltic Sea stops in Lithuania, the Kaliningrad exclave, Poland and Germany, before reaching the Atlantic.

Bicentennial expedition

While belief in a vast, southern continent had long been held, at least since the time of Ptolemy in the 1st Century A.D., no known explorers got close to Antarctica until the late 18th Century (the first sighting, by Europeans, of Australia, which unlike Antarctica has an indigenous population, was made in the previous century).

British explorer Captain James Cook felt the existence of the frozen continent highly probable, and got within 120 km of the ice shelf in 1773, but it was not until 1820 when its existence was confirmed beyond all doubt.

The first Russian Antarctic Expedition, led by von Bellingshausen in a sloop around ten times the displacement of the present-day boat bearing his name, spotted the ice shelf on Jan. 27 of that year, three days before British Royal Naval Captain Edward Bransfield did the same.

Land-based exploration began in earnest at the beginning of the 20th century with the British-led Discovery expedition; Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton came within 200 km of the pole itself in 1909, with the prize finally claimed by Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1911.

The original "Aktuaalne kaamera" report (in Estonian) is here.

A gallery of the Bellingshausen while she was anchored at Sillmäe is below.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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