Breaking The Ice

HMS Endurance is a one-of-a-kind vessel – a Royal Navy ice-patrol ship deployed to the Antarctic for unique surveying and scientific work.

On board HMS Endurance we worry that the term `unique’ is used too often, but it is a fact that our ship and role are unique within the Royal Navy. She is a national asset. Funded originally by the Treasury, HMS Endurance is tasked by four main stakeholders: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) and, of course, the Ministry of Defence. As such, she is an excellent example of cross-government co-operation, supporting the UK’s role as a key member of the Antarctic Treaty and a leading player in the science of the polar regions.


The UK has been involved in Antarctic exploration and science for more than 200 years; the Royal Navy played a formative role during the `Heroic Age’ of exploration in the early 20th century. From James Cook to James Clark Ross, to Captain Scott and Shackleton (whose family motto `by endurance we conquer’ determined the name of our ship), the Royal Navy has been intimately involved in Antarctic matters. Appearances from RN ships pepper the history of the continent – among many others HMS Resolution, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in the earliest days to HMS Protector and HMS Endurance in the latter half of the last century – emphasising the exploits of our illustrious predecessors and inspiring the names of geographical features such as Erebus and Terror Gulf in the Antarctic Peninsula.


Approximately 2.5 times the size of continental USA, Antarctica is the world’s highest, coldest and windiest continent. Although its ice cap contains 75 per cent of the globe’s fresh water (and 90 per cent of its ice), very low precipitation means much of this remote, inhospitable continent is classed as desert. Massive icebergs are spawned every year from Antarctica’s floating ice shelves and each winter the surrounding oceans freeze, doubling the size of the continent.


Antarctica is an engine of our environment; the processes there are inextricably linked to the oceans and the world’s climate, and affect living conditions thousands of miles away in the northern hemisphere. Its ice cap (in some places up to 4km deep) contains a 500,000-year-old climate record with an archive of ice-trapped air bubbles indicating global pollution levels and ozone depletion through time. Studies of the ice sheet’s behaviour are vital to our understanding of climate change and sea-level rise, while the rich fauna of the Southern Ocean provides vital evidence of the impact of global warming.


HMS Endurance’s mission is `to patrol and survey the Antarctic and South Atlantic, maintaining Sovereign Presence with Defence Diplomacy and supporting the global community of Antarctica’. This encapsulates the requirements of her major stakeholders and the planning that underpins her annual deployments to Antarctica. Traditionally, the ship leaves the UK in early autumn, arriving in the southern hemisphere at the onset of the Austral summer when the sea ice retreats enough to allow operations in the Antarctic Peninsula. As the summer closes, HMS Endurance makes the return passage northwards, supporting the FCO with visits to the Falklands and South Georgia, outposts such as Tristan da Cunha and St Helena and southern nations including Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and South Africa. Deployments are normally for six months but for the 2006-7 season we will be trialling a nine-month deployment to maximise the ship’s time on the ice.


We have two ice-modified Lynx Mk 3 helicopters: very flexible utility aircraft that enable the ship to support BAS fieldcamps in remote areas of the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the South Shetlands whose scientists are working on four of BAS’s eight core scientific programmes. Under the auspices of the FCO and the Antarctic Treaty HMS Endurance hosts international teams inspecting scientific bases in the area. During the 2005-6 season, she supported experts tasked with drafting guidelines to protect popular and environmentally sensitive tourist sites. Working with the International Hydrographic Organisation, the UKHO uses the ship’s surveying capability to produce accurate metric charts of the Antarctic Peninsula.


Two nine-tonne Survey Motor Boats are key to HMS Endurance’s surveying role. Equipped with single beam echo sounders and deployable plotting outfits, the boats survey shallow waters. They are a great test of the surveyors’ skills and very popular, complementing the ship’s multi-beam echo sounder (MBES), a remarkable technology that produces a three dimensional, colour-coded image of the seabed. First deployed during the last Antarctic season, we estimate that it gives a 10-fold increase in HMS Endurance’s surveying output.


Life on board HMS Endurance is invariably busy as we maintain and prepare for the deployed season, train for seagoing eventualities and conduct operations in the ice. While we live in considerable comfort by traditional naval standards (two or three berth cabins and en suite bathrooms are the norm) our processes and routines are the same as those of `grey warships’: ensuring that our people are well-trained and able to serve anywhere in the Royal Navy. Everyone is enthusiastic about the ship and her role, while the privilege of working in the Antarctic environment ensures that people wait patiently for a chance to join us.


Visit the HMS Endurance Tracking Project at