Antarctic Explorer

Antarctic Explorer – The Cousteau Society is taking on the ice in their new polar vessel

During February, Dive New Zealand met up with Ollie Olphert, Sir Peter Blake’s right hand man for expeditions, and the French crew of Antarctic Explorer in Auckland. Antarctic Explorer is the Cousteau Society’s latest vessel. She was built in 1989 by the company SFCN at their yard in Villeneuve la Garenne (France) for Jean-Louis Etienne, a French explorer who did polar treks and various Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Her overall length is 36 metres (120 feet) with a beam of almost 10 metres. She has been designed in such a way that she can winter over in the ice. By retracting the keels and rudders, the ice can come in and compact around her. She has a fully self-sustainable interior with large capacities for food, fuel, heating, power generation etc. Her longest winter over in the ice was eight months.

Antarctic Explorer is in Auckland for approximately two months while being prepared for her upcoming journey, and for the Cousteau Society to do some promotional work when Sir Peter Blake comes aboard after the America’s Cup.

Since Calypso (now in a museum in La Rochelle, France) was sunk when hit by a barge in Singapore, chartered vessels and the Cousteau vessel Alcyone have been used to undertake the expeditions in Lake Baikal, the Caspian Sea and the St Lawrence River. During recent Cousteau Society planning meetings with Madame Cousteau and Sir Peter it became evident that as a minimum, another vessel would be required to undertake the numerous missions planned. A large amount of preparatory work is still required prior to commencing the building of Calypso II and hopefully III, IV and V. Therefore, the need for an additional vessel like Antarctic Explorer to fill the gap was deemed a high priority. ‘During this interim period we need to get the people back on board in our endeavours and get the enthusiasm and the excitement going with our documentaries. We need to build the momentum again,’ said Ollie.

We were intrigued as to why they picked going to the ice and not the tropics. Ollie grinned and replied, ‘Peter just loves and is intrigued by the ice! Additionally, it is still one of the most unexplored areas of the world which, most importantly, hold our planet’s climate and environment in balance. We have ongoing projects in tropical areas and throughout the world, however these remote areas with incredible scenery and landscape, plus wild marine and animal life, are considered fantastic for the recommencement of our major filming and research missions. Therefore, they make the perfect starting point for our new adventures.

The first leg of Antarctic Explorer’s journey will be to join the other Cousteau vessel, Alcyone, which is currently being re-fitted in a boat yard in Virginia. She will head up to Virginia and from there both vessels will head north to Greenland to work together filming and doing research around that area over the summer. Antarctic Explorer may stay in Greenland for the winter to trial their first winter-over and, dependent on conditions, Alcyone may then go south to work in warmer locations.

We asked Ollie whether they planned to stay in one particular area while on the ice and monitor it for a while, or if they would keep going. ‘In the summer we will be more flexible to continue work and will probably keep travelling, doing dives and research along the way in conjunction with our filming. In the winter we will most likely use the vessel as a base station, which in itself will be extremely interesting in relation to wintering over in one particular spot. Excursions out some distance onto the ice with a couple of snowmobiles and all the equipment for extended stays from the base will, we feel, be of high interest and worthy of individual film projects. Diving will naturally be a part of all these adventures.

We all wondered how a vessel could withstand the pressure from the ice. Ollie explained, ‘In general the overall hull external plating is an inch (2.54 cm) thick, and internally the framing is of heavy construction. The vessel is classed as a polar yacht and is built to the French Bureau Veritas standards for polar ice work. This means in basic terms that everything is extremely strong, similar to that of an ice breaker. The bow is a cast block of aluminium that was specifically poured in a foundry in France so that we can break ice up to about 24 inches (80 centimetres) depending on the density. The ice propellers are in a tunnel down aft, and when we are travelling in the ice we fit them with specific ice breaking bars and shrouds, which break the larger chunks of ice into smaller pieces that won’t affect or damage the propellers themselves.’

As we sat talking to Ollie, we were very aware of how warm it was on board, even with covers around all the windows. Ollie explained that the vessel has approximately six inches of insulation lining the entire hull. Because it is so well insulated it is like a sauna in warmer climates. In the Arctic and Antarctic it does still get cool, but with a generator and, if required, the oil fired heater running, the temperature remains a constant 16 to 18 degrees Celsius. The main saloon living area is surrounded on deck by large double Lexan windows and when uncovered, the sunlight shining through produces an effect similar to a hothouse, generating a huge amount of warmth throughout the vessel.

Utilising new technology and equipment, The Cousteau Society will be filming many adventures in the old Cousteau manner to highlight ecological and environmental issues throughout the world. After a stay in Greenland they plan to head through the North West Passage with Antarctic Explorer highlighting the many beautiful sights and dramatic landscapes on film. They will spend several months crossing through this region and around Alaska before rejoining Alcyone (if not accompanying) in the South American regions prior to the Antarctic. The present plan is to keep the two vessels together as much as possible for greater efficiency and better filming opportunities. Within the next five years their journey will be around Greenland, North West Passage, Alaska, South America, Chile, Antarctic, up through the Pacific, the Coral Seas, New Zealand, Australia and Asia.

In conjunction with their ongoing programmes and projects, The Cousteau Society will be placing more emphasis on raising their profile through education worldwide with hard-hitting and awe inspiring documentaries. Together with the films and publications, plus the Society’s inter-active web sites, the plan is to increase the awareness of people, particularly the young, worldwide and to make them feel a part of the ongoing expeditions, adventures and the urgent needs regarding ecological and environmental issues. In schools or homes around the world you will be able to link up with the vessels on a daily basis to see what missions are being undertaken on any particular day. ‘We believe through these mediums we can get everyone involved from the little toddlers up. Plans are to produce documentaries on a continuous basis, similar to those produced by the late

Captain that many of us grew up on and came to love during our younger years.’

The Cousteau Society have always filmed on film format and never video. The late Captain looked at the advances in video technology many times up until his death and decided that the standard and quality of video was still not to the level used in film. Recently, however, the Society has been looking at the new video high definition digital systems as part of an ongoing review of current technology. Ollie feels that this is the way to go. ‘The good thing about video is that you can review and edit the footage on site. With film we don’t develop on board, so being unable to immediately review what has been filmed can be unproductive, plus the film processing is both time consuming and expensive. The additional process of then converting it to video is also time consuming. I think we will be changing, maybe not entirely, but it is under review. Cousteau cameramen have always been utilised on expeditions due to their familiarity and experience with the late Captain’s requirements. Being specifically film, the late Captain was very stringent on his filming quality. The cutting ratio was phenomenal with miles and miles of archive film one would think was fantastic being cut out.’

Naturally, we were curious about the type of diving equipment the Cousteau Society will be using on their expeditions. The Society hasn’t been with US Divers (Aqua-Lung) for some time now and are currently looking at what new systems and equipment is available in the world market place. They still wish to have a distinct Cousteau diver look, but encompassing all the latest technical advances. Ollie stated, ‘In the earlier days it used to be Cousteau and US Divers who designed and manufactured a lot of the plant and equipment that we still have within the Society. Presently we utilise some of the older equipment and a large amount of modern equipment for diving, including our 300 bar Kevlar air tanks. We have been utilising these for a number of years now as they are developments which were specific to Cousteau. However, we wish to modernise in line with today’s major diving manufacturers technical advances. To modernise all the equipment and systems inhouse to this level of advancement would require major funding and huge research and development. Therefore, why not save our funding for the specific urgent ecological and environmental issues at hand and work in conjunction with major manufacturers on equipment issues?’

‘For a specific manufacturer we feel it will be a fantastic opportunity to join us in our new adventures. We will be putting their equipment through rugged workouts in extreme environments, which in turn will benefit both parties with research and development, plus gain the manufacturer high visibility during documentaries.

The level of diving has dropped from the original days on films which we all saw as youngsters, when the Cousteau teams were doing both experimental and deep diving projects. Over the last two years the diving in the Cousteau Society has been primarily air diving in shallower depths down to 35 metres. In the future we will be incorporating Nitrox and Mixed gas systems onto the vessels. Antarctic Explorer has a lot more space so it will be easier to do this. Alcyone, at just over 100 feet, is a bit limited with space, hence our optimum requirement to utilise both vessels together on a regular basis. ROV’s will also be incorporated for deeper and hazardous filming excursions, but as far as manned subs and deep diving excursions go that will be on hold until the building of Calypso II for incorporation of these specific systems.

As Ollie showed us round the vessel we were impressed with her capabilities. She has well appointed accommodation for 20 people with three toilets and three showers. The forepeak is a large hold specifically designed to store and have hatch access to the large amount of equipment during expeditions (40 tons). A saloon midship provides a large area for living and dining with a sunken galley and library on either side. Joining the saloon aft is a lower deck communications office. Engine and machinery rooms plus workshop etc are located aft with further crew accommodation. The main engines are two Deutz 350 hp diesels. She takes normal marine gas oil diesel and carries 50,000 litres capacity (50 tons). She has seven fuel tanks, two of them as ballast (port and starboard). The maximum fuel consumption per day is 800 litres with everything running (two big generators and two main engines). If they are sailing, which is preferred, it is very efficient and economical as they just have one generator running, permitting extended endurance. There is an osmosis desalination water maker on board with the tank holding up to 6,000 litres (6 tons). When in the Arctic or Antarctic, due to extreme low water temperatures you may at times not be able to utilise salt water cooling for plant and machinery. All the plant and machinery therefore is salt water or air cooled with some additional heating systems for salt water heating. The main engines are normally operated with only air and a fresh water cooling circuit, however the generators are operated in both modes. The water maker has a heater so the salt water can be heated before going through the plant. There are also heating elements that can be dipped into the fresh water tanks to stop the water freezing solid.

Jean-Louis Etienne, the previous owner of Antarctic Explorer undertook Arctic and Antarctic exploration and specific scientific expeditions during his ownership. There was an array of scientific equipment onboard, in particular a specialised winch down aft which deployed a large water analysis system down to 4,000 metres. In 1998 he decided to do polar cruises for wealthy people and outfitted her as a polar yacht tourist boat. The inside was refitted to make it more suitable for charter requirements. After his first polar cruise in June 1999, the vessel came to Sir Peter’s attention. Ollie was sent to do a report on her, and the rest is history.

We at Dive New Zealand, and I’m sure all the divers in New Zealand, wish the Cousteau Society every success in their endeavours. We all have a secret desire to be with them, and with the on-line website we can join their adventures and watch their progress as they journey around the world.

For more information on the Cousteau Society see their website

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