Semaphore: RAN Activities in the Southern Ocean

Semaphore Issue 18, 2006
Semaphore Issue 18, 2006

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The effect of the weather in or near the Southern Ocean and its impact on Royal Australian Navy (RAN) operations was considered in a recent Semaphore Newsletter.[1] This Semaphore describes some RAN activities in the Southern Ocean since World War II (WWII).

RAN capabilities were vital to the creation of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition’s (ANARE) scientific Research Stations on Heard and Macquarie Islands in the late 1940s. The RAN then conducted annual resupply of the stations for several years and undertook a number of emergency medical evacuations. More recently, the RAN has operated deep into the Southern Ocean, firstly to meet Australia’s international Search and Rescue obligations, and secondly, in fisheries protection operations around Heard and McDonald Islands (HIMI).

HMA LST3501 had been selected to provide logistic support to ANARE for the establishment of research stations on Heard Island, about 2160nm south west of Perth, and Macquarie Island, about 810nm south of Hobart. On 28 November 1947, LST3501 left Fremantle arriving at Heard Island on 12 December. On arrival there were two tasks: identifying suitable landing sites to offload stores and personnel; and identifying the appropriate location for the Research Station. Small craft were used to ferry stores ashore in extremely difficult sea conditions, and LST3501 beached to allow quick offloading of stores. After offloading all the stores, and leaving 14 ANARE personnel for their 12-month sojourn, LST3501 departed for Kerguelen Island to land fuel for HMAS Wyatt Earp and then proceeded to Melbourne.[2] In late 1947, the RAN commissioned the motor vessel Wyatt Earp to explore King George V Island off Antarctica. It departed Melbourne on 8 February 1948, however, the pack ice was too dense to force a passage and after numerous attempts, Wyatt Earp set course for Macquarie Island.[3]

After repairs in Melbourne and re-storing, LST3501 departed for Macquarie Island on 28 February 1948, carrying 13 ANARE personnel and 400 tons of stores. On 7 March, she arrived off Macquarie Island but could not beach herself as the shoreline was strewn with rocks, so small craft were used to reconnoitre and move stores ashore. The waters off Macquarie Island are quite rough, and these craft as well as pontoons were often damaged and in some cases destroyed. Wyatt Earp arrived on 20 March and both ships departed for Australia on 25 March.[4]

On 16 December 1948, LST3501 was renamed HMAS Labuan (I) and under that name sailed to Heard Island three more times (January-February 1949, January-March 1950, and January-February 1951) and to Macquarie Island twice more (March-April 1949, and April 1950) to resupply the research stations and change-out the ANARE personnel. However Labuan was severely damaged by weather on her final return from Heard Island in 1951, and was not used again. This caused some disruption to ANARE resupply operations and since then ANARE has relied on chartered civilian resupply ships.[5] However, in October 1985, the ANARE supply ship MV Nella Dan became trapped in pack ice and could not resupply Macquarie Island, so HMAS Stalwart was diverted from South East Asia to provide essential supplies. This resupply effort involved the changeover of 39 research personnel, and offloading of 200,000 litres of fuel and more than 100 tonnes of general cargo, the bulk of which was transferred ashore by Sea King helicopter.

As there are no airstrips on Heard or Macquarie Islands, any medical evacuation must be done by sea, and the RAN has conducted four such operations. In July 1950, the Medical Officer on Heard Island self diagnosed himself with appendicitis and requested medical evacuation. After two civilian ships failed in their attempts to effect a rescue, the task fell to the RAN. On 27 July 1950 the heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II) was dispatched on a lengthy mercy mission through gale conditions and blizzards. The crew of Australiahad one day's notice of the impending mission and spent that time taking on fresh provisions, winter and Arctic clothing and special stores, while offloading all equipment, such as motor boats, the whaler and skiffs, from the upper deck. The major planning consideration was fuel usage and the principal factor affecting fuel usage was the weather. The need to sail at speed would deplete fuel quickly, and the possibility of poor weather at Heard Island would require Australia to loiter, demanding the extra fuel that would have been used in a rapid transit. Luckily the weather on the outward passage was better than expected and left enough fuel for the remainder of the task, while poor weather off Heard Island delayed Australia for a day before she could launch a boat to the island to collect the patient. Australia suffered some structural damage during this operation and the Government decided the RAN would not be made available in future to attempt this type of rescue for ANARE.[6]

However in October 1966, HMAS Queenborough while on a training cruise in Tasmanian waters was dispatched through 9 metre swells and up to 60 knot winds with blinding hail and snow, to effect an evacuation from Macquarie Island. Once there, it took 30 minutes for the ship’s boat to get to shore, allowing the patient to be immediately loaded onboard. The weather then worsened and it became apparent that, had Queenborough arrived an hour later the weather would have been too poor to allow boat work, and the ship would have had to loiter offshore and use up valuable fuel reserves.[7]

In May 1967, HMAS Perth (II) evacuated a patient from Macquarie Island. In spite of icy conditions, gale force winds and rough seas, the patient was taken offshore in an inflatable life raft, thence to the ship’s boat and then to Perth. Finally, in January 1979, HMAS Hobart (II) was dispatched to Macquarie Island to evacuate a badly injured patient. On this occasion, Hobart operated in conjunction with the Antarctic Support Vessel Thala Dan. Hobart’s crew constructed a makeshift helipad so that Thala Dan’s helicopter could pick up the patient from the island and airlift him directly to Hobart.[8]

In the 1990s, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) conducted two well-publicised rescues of stranded yachtsmen deep in the Southern Ocean. In late December 1994, HMAS Darwin was directed to sail in search of the lone yachtswoman Isabelle Autissier, stranded some 900nm off Adelaide. On 1 January 1995, Darwin launched its Seahawk helicopter and an hour later Autissier was safe onboard. Two years later, the ADF undertook one of the most complex ocean rescues ever attempted. On 6 January 1997 distress beacons were activated in the Southern Ocean, and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority ascertained that two yachtsmen were in trouble. HMAS Adelaide (II) sailed at 1600 that day and was in constant contact with Royal Australian Air Force Orion aircraft that had located each vessel and directed Adelaide to effect the actual rescues. Early on 9 January Adelaide’s Seahawk helicopter rescued Thierry Dubois from a RAAF life raft dropped earlier near his stricken yacht. Shortly thereafter, Adelaide came to Tony Bullimore’s overturned yacht, launched its boat and rescued him after he swam out from beneath the hull.[9]

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982, Australia now claims a 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for its offshore territories, and also claims sovereign rights to manage and conserve associated fish stocks in those waters. The Patagonian Toothfish is a valuable fish found in the waters around the HIMI and is the target of illegal fishing. The RAN is occasionally tasked with patrols into the HIMI, and given the possible open-ended nature of each deployment, the major fleet units are accompanied by a tanker. The purpose of these patrols is to deter Foreign Fishing Vessels (FFVs) or catch them in the act and then take them into custody. The RAN has undertaken four such deployments, supplementing civilian-chartered vessels by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) and been involved in two other interception activities.

In October 1997 HMAS Anzac (III) deployed from Fremantle with the tanker HMAS Westralia (II) in support as part of Operation DIRK. On 15 October, Anzac sighted a FFV on radar, subsequently identified her as the Salvora, shadowed her and then attempted a boarding, but bad weather intervened. Later that day, the Salvora was boarded, a steaming party embarked and she was directed to make passage to Fremantle. On 17 October, Anzac inserted a boarding party by Seahawk aboard another FFV, the Aliza Glacial, and a steaming party was left on board while Anzac escorted both FFVs to a rendezvous with Westralia on 18 October. Westralia subsequently took charge of both FFVs while Anzac, after refuelling from Westralia, continued patrolling, but no further FFVs were sighted.[10]

In February 1998 HMAS Newcastle and Westralia deployed as part of Operation STANHOPE. On 19 February, the Big Star was boarded and apprehended 9nm inside the EEZ. During the boarding operation, the Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) overturned, requiring a ‘rescue’ by the Seahawk helicopter. Westralia and Big Star detached from the area on 22 February to make passage for Fremantle, while Newcastle continued patrolling until poor weather led to her being recalled. Newcastle rendezvoused with Westralia on 28 February to refuel, and then all returned to Fremantle.[11]

In April 2001, a Togo-registered but Spanish owned FFV was caught illegally fishing in the HIMI by the AFMA chartered vessel Southern Supporter. When challenged, the South Tomi initially headed towards Fremantle, but once on the high seas it turned towards Africa. The AFMA vessel chased the ship across the Indian Ocean for 14 days, while RAN personnel flew to South Africa and with the assistance of the South African Defence Force, boarded the ship, which was subsequently returned to Australia for the crew to face court. The skipper of the South Tomi was fined $136,000, the illegal catch of 116 tonnes of toothfish was sold for $1.4m and the boat was forfeited. Similarly in Operation GEMSBOK, the ADF operated in conjunction with AFMA, Coastwatch and the Republic of South Africa to apprehend the Viarsa I as it fled from the HIMI EEZ across the Indian Ocean in late 2003.

On 29 January 2002, HMAS Canberra (II), which had been preparing to deploy to the Arabian Gulf, and Westralia deployed as part of Operation SUTTON to apprehend up to three fishing vessels. On 6 February, the Lena was discovered early in the morning but bad weather delayed boarding until the afternoon. Westralia subsequently escorted the Lena while Canberra investigated a contact to the north, and later that day the Volga was boarded and apprehended.[12] Westralia escorted the Lena and the Volga outside the HIMI EEZ while Canberra continued patrolling, but there were no more sightings so all ships returned to Fremantle.[13]

In January 2004, HMAS Warramunga (II) deployed as part of Operation CELESTA. Warramunga boarded and apprehended the Maya V and two days later HMAS Success (II) rendezvoused with Warramunga. Warramunga returned to Fremantle with the Maya V, and Success continued patrolling. Success subsequently discovered two sets of fishing buoys that had been layed by Maya V as part of her long line fishing; they were recovered and proved to be crucial prosecution evidence against the Maya V. During Warramunga’s return to Hobart, she sighted a suspect FFV 350nm south east of Heard Island and warned her off as there was no other reason for the vessel to be in the vicinity unless she planned to fish illegally.[14]

The RAN’s activities in the Southern Ocean emphasise a number of characteristics of naval forces. The reach of naval forces is considerable and is further enhanced through the use of tanker support. To place the distances inherent in Southern Ocean operations in perspective, the transit from Fremantle to Heard Island exceeds the breadth of the North Atlantic Ocean; a WWII Atlantic Ocean convoy would have travelled, at a minimum, 1740nm from Londonderry in Northern Ireland to St Johns in Newfoundland in Canada.

Sea conditions in the Southern Ocean are treacherous, yet naval forces are resilient in the face of weather damage and able to continue with their assigned tasks. Importantly, multi-roled naval forces seamlessly transition between roles and are able to be re-tasked quickly, usually without any need for further resupply of specialised crew training.


  1. Royal Australian Navy, ‘The Effects of Weather on RAN Operations in the Southern Ocean’, Semaphore Newsletter, Issue 13, July 2006.
  2. HMA LST3501, Report of Proceedings - Voyage to Heard Island [1947-1948]
  3. HMAS Wyatt Earp, Report of Proceedings, 1 April 1948.
  4. HMA LST3501, Report of Proceedings, 1 April 1948.
  5. T Bowden, The Silence Calling: Australians in Antarctica 1947-97, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1997, pp. 82, 86.
  6. HMAS Australia, Report on Mission to Heard Island July-August 1950, and T Bowden, The Silence Calling, pp. 77-80.
  7. Royal Australian Navy, Navy News, 9 December 1966, p. 3.
  8. Royal Australian Navy, Navy News, 12 May 1967, pp. 1, 3. HMAS Hobart, Report of Proceedings, January 1979. This rescue is covered in more detail in Royal Australian Navy, ‘Naval Ingenuity: a Case Study’, Semaphore Newsletter, Issue 18, November 2005.
  9. HMAS Darwin, Reports of Proceedings, December 1994, January 1995. HMAS Adelaide, Report of Proceedings, January 1997.
  10. HMAS Anzac, Report of Proceedings, October 1997.
  11. HMAS Newcastle, Report of Proceedings, February 1998.
  12. The pursuit of the Volga raised interesting legal questions which are examined in Royal Australian Navy, ‘Hot Pursuit and Australian Fisheries Law’, Semaphore Newsletter, Issue 11, June 2006.
  13. HMAS Canberra, Report of Proceedings, January 2002.
  14. Peter Chase, ‘Antarctica Success’ in Royal Australian Navy, Australia’s Navy 2004, Canberra, 2005, pp. 9-11.

Sea Power Centre - Australia

Sea Power Centre - Australia
Department of Defence
Canberra ACT 2600