Australia’s $528m icebreaking research vessel has suffered another setback and will not resupply the remote Macquarie Island station in coming months as initially planned, with a chartered vessel taking its place.
The Romanian-built ship, RSV Nuyina, significantly enhances Australia’s climate research capabilities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean but has endured numerous problems since its delivery in 2021, which itself was delayed by close to a year due to the pandemic.
Nuyina’s first voyage to Antarctica in late 2021 was delayed due to problems with its alarm system. Issues were then detected before reaching Casey Station and during repairs to its clutch system months later, the manufacturer Damen determined the shaft couplings needed replacing.
The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) had planned for Nuyina to refuel the remote Macquarie Island station in March, while collecting returning expeditioners, but the division has confirmed that will now be done by the chartered icebreaker Aiviq.
“Like all new and complex ships, Nuyina will require time for commissioning as it prepares to serve Australia’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean science efforts in the decades ahead,” an AAD spokesperson said.
“While Nuyina was due to return to Australia in March, it is now expected to return in April and as part of contingency planning, Aiviq will undertake the Macquarie Island voyage.
“Aiviq may also be available for a later voyage to the island as a contingency.”
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Guardian Australia has been told the switch from Nuyina to the smaller Aiviq will delay some scientific research on Macquarie Island, due to a lack of accommodation onboard. The AAD did not respond to questions about the impact on research.
The Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said the public deserved more transparency about who was paying for ongoing repairs and how scientific research had been impacted by the ship’s absence.
“Australia’s multimillion-dollar icebreaker only hit the water in late 2021 yet has spent about as much time in maintenance and repairs as it has servicing Australia’s Antarctic science missions,” Whish-Wilson said.
“The AAD has been chronically under-resourced by successive federal governments for decades resulting in fragmented Antarctic research and uncertainty in the science community.
“A plagued $528m expedition ship is the last thing the fragile Antarctic Division needs.”
Nuyina is under warranty during its commissioning and trial stages, which were expected to last around two years. An AAD spokesperson confirmed the vessel would also remain under warranty “for the duration of maintenance in Singapore”.
When the AAD realised Nuyina would be unavailable for the majority of the summer period, it chartered the 110-metre US icebreaking vessel Aiviq as a replacement, for an undisclosed cost. The 157-metre Dutch-flagged cargo ship Happy Dragon was also chartered.
The Aiviq may not be available on a long-term basis, with the US Coast Guard reportedly interested in chartering it from Alaska later this year.
Nuyina, named after an Indigenous word for southern lights, contains a unique 13-metre “moon pool”, allowing robot craft to be deployed through the hull.
On top of built-in laboratories, it can be fitted with modular labs in shipping containers. It replaces the icebreaker Aurora Australis, which retired from its role in March 2020 after 30 years.
The ship’s delivery was cited as a key moment for the AAD in director Kim Ellis’s resignation letter to staff on Monday evening.
“The last four years have been some of the most challenging for the division; a global pandemic, the end of service for the Aurora Australis, the introduction of new contingent shipping and the Nuyina, two machinery of government changes, a new direction for science and operations, and the major changes created by the sustainable funding review and its implementation,” Ellis wrote.