March 28 2018 - After a five and a half month tour through the Antarctic, the polar patrol vessel Astrolabe has returned to its home port in Réunion. It was a successful mission - in five round trips between Hobart in Tasmania and the French scientific base in Dumont d'Urville in Adélie Land, it delivered 1,000 tonnes of freight (fish ponds, various equipment, vehicles and logistical resources) and nearly 1,600 m3 of diesel fuel. The Astrolabe, named after the well-known ships of the French explorers La Pérouse and Dumont d'Urville, also carried 200 scientists and technicians.
It was the first mission of the vessel, which was commissioned in June 2017. Without this type of icebreaker, capable of sailing in extreme weather conditions, the research bases in this area would be unable to operate.
The TAAFs, an observatory at the world's end
The French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF) are a hotspot for unique biodiversity and a prominent research site. They are made up of islands and uninhabited territories. Scientists are posted on bases across the continent of Antarctica, the southern islands and the Scattered Islands.
Their role is to study the impact of climate change, which is all the more visible near the poles. The base on Amsterdam Island is the IPCC's observatory for the Southern Hemisphere.
A renewed fleet
However it is difficult to supply these territories, due to their isolation, the vast distances to be covered and the specific climate conditions encountered there. A complex logistical chain is required. Whereas the Scattered Islands receive their supplies by military aircraft, all the other bases are reached by sea using dedicated patrol vessels.
To finish modernizing its fleet, after the refurbishing of the Marion Dufresne in 2013 (also funded by AFD), TAAF administration then invested in a new, hybrid vessel through an original partnership between the TAAF, the French Polar Institute Paul-Émile Victor (IPEV) and the French Navy. This icebreaker alone does the work of previous vessels, the Astrolabe (a logistics ship) and the Albatros (a patrol ship). It was entirely funded by AFD thanks to a €50m loan.
Missions of sovereignty
A two-in-one vessel: in addition to its logistical mission, the Astrolabe also patrols the seas in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) spanning 2,500,000 km2 and covering France's largest nature reserve. Protecting this heritage is thus a priority of France's strategy for the TAAF.
After spending a month for technical maintenance in Réunion, the Astrolabe is currently patrolling in the southern Indian Ocean, near the islands of Crozet, Kerguelen, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam. The vessel, constantly armed by the French Navy, will take part in fishing surveillance, the conservation of marine fishing resources and the fight against illegal trafficking. A second maintenance stop is scheduled in Réunion before it returns to the Antarctic in fall 2018.