VESSEL REVIEW | Sir David Attenborough – British Antarctic Survey’s large capacity research and supply ship

VESSEL REVIEW | Sir David Attenborough – British Antarctic Survey’s large capacity research and supply ship

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

The UK National Environment Research Council (NERC) has placed a new Antarctic research and supply vessel into service. Operated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the vessel is named Sir David Attenborough after the seasoned English radio and television broadcaster who has become best known for his decades of work covering nature and the environment.

Built by local shipyard Cammell Laird as a replacement for two older polar exploration ships that have been in service for over 20 years, Sir David Attenborough is designed to support science in extreme environments. A wide range of specialist scientific facilities, instruments, and laboratories enable scientists to conduct multi-disciplinary studies of the ocean, seafloor, ice, and atmosphere. Robotic marine and airborne craft and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) will capture data from the deep ocean and from previously inaccessible locations underneath the ice.

The Falkland Islands-registered vessel has a length of 129 metres, a beam of 24 metres, a gross tonnage of 15,000, a total dry cargo capacity of approximately 2,100 cubic metres, and an aviation fuel capacity of 660 cubic metres. The flexible design of the cargo hold means containers and other cargo can be stowed efficiently.

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

The ship has a number of built-in wet, dry, and temperature-controlled cold laboratories with a total area of more than 750 square metres, though it is also possible to install portable containerised laboratories for increased operational flexibility. The containers can be reconfigured to ensure research teams have the facilities they need.

Also installed on board are air and aerosol sampling facilities, drawing air from two locations – the foremast platform, above the vessel’s bow, and from above the crow’s nest. It also has an extensive suite of meteorological sensors to measure surface air pressure, wind speed and direction, air temperature and humidity, visibility, and precipitation (including the presence of freezing rain or icing conditions).

The vessel can also handle a 40.6-metre OSIL giant piston corer, which will recover sediment cores from the seafloor containing detailed records going back hundreds of thousands of years. This information will aid investigations into ice-shelf thinning and retreat, sedimentary processes, and oceanic circulation.

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

The diesel-electric propulsion system includes large-capacity batteries, four Rolls-Royce Bergen B33:45L6A main diesel engines, and two Kongsberg Promas 4.5-metre controllable-pitch propellers driven by 2,750kW independent electric motors. The main engines are of two different sizes – two nine-cylinder and two six-cylinder models – to allow the vessel to operate efficiently across a wide range of conditions.

The setup also allows the vessel to operate on a single main engine where otherwise two engines would be needed. This type of operation prevents the need to run engines at part-load to provide enough spinning reserve for transient spike loads, thus saving a significant amount of fuel over the life of the ship. The battery system will also provide continuity of supply if a main engine trips out. The system can supply essential electrical loads during the interim period while a standby diesel alternator is starting as well as during any spike in demand.

The engines are designed to run as silently as possible, and special attention is given to avoiding sweep-down of bubbles around the hull that could otherwise interfere with acoustic sensors. This then results in extremely low underwater radiated noise, hence avoiding interference with survey equipment or disturbance to marine mammals or fish distribution. For underwater radiated noise, the vessel has been designed to achieve a DNV Silent (R) notation during surveys at speeds up to and including 11 knots, and a DNV Silent (S) notation whilst towing seismic equipment at six to eight knots in calm seas.

The four main engines are designed to operate on ultra low sulphur fuel containing less than 0.1 per cent sulphur. This limits its SOx emissions and meets the latest MARPOL requirements for operating in sulphur emission-controlled areas. The main engine exhausts are fitted with selective catalytic reduction to further reduce NOx emissions to meet MARPOL Tier III limits.

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

A Cummins KTA38-DM1 885kW generator will supply power for the vessel while in port without the main engines idling. The ship also has a Cummins emergency power generator set with electrical and hydraulic start mechanisms.

The vessel can sail up to 19,000 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 13 knots, which BAS said is more than enough for a return trip from England to Rothera Research Station, or to circle the entire Antarctic continent twice. This endurance can also translate into up to 60 days being spent out at sea.

The vessel’s icebreaking speed is set at three knots, which will enable effective sailing through ice up to one metre thick. Tees White Gill bow and stern thrusters are also fitted and are connected to the dynamic positioning (DP) system.

The ship’s heating system is also designed to save power – waste heat from the engines is recycled to heat water and keep the ship’s temperature at an optimum. Panelling around the hull has been laid internally to produce a smooth hull without steps, reducing friction and further increasing the ship’s fuel efficiency. The hull of the ship is coated with a non-toxic paint that provides a hard, impermeable, and impenetrable coating. Along with manual removal of fouling at an early stage, the coating offers long-lasting protection for the hull without the use of chemicals.

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

BAS said Sir David Attenborough is also the first British polar research ship to be fitted with a moonpool. In the newbuild’s case, it is a four- by four-metre vertical shaft at the centre of the hull and open to both the air and the sea.

There is also onboard space for a small, sensor-equipped science workboat and a cargo tender that can perform resupply missions in areas that Sir David Attenborough cannot access due to its size and draught. Smaller inflatable boats are also available. Aviation facilities include a flight deck and hangar for use by two small helicopters, which will be used to deploy airborne scientific instruments and scientific field parties or transfer vital equipment to shore in case of fast ice preventing a landing by the larger ship.

The vessel is fitted with an array of cranes including a 50-tonne port-side-only crane, a 20-tonne crane that can be used on either side, port and starboard science cranes, and a provisions crane on the helicopter deck. Four 90-person lifeboats are also available on board, and these are to be deployed and recovered with the aid of dedicated davits.

A Kongsberg Maritime package includes an energy management system, winches for aiding subsea surveys and collecting seabed and water samples, and a handling unit that enables personnel in the science hangar to safely deploy autonomous vehicles and other equipment into the water via the moonpool.

Photo: British Antarctic Survey

Accommodations are available for 30 crewmembers plus up to 60 scientists and support staff. To make the crew as comfortable as possible during life at sea, cabins are located far from the bow of the ship to reduce the effects of the ship’s motion on sleep and comfort. They are also located away from sources of noise and vibration and have a lots of natural light from windows or portlights.

There is also a hospital on board should the crew need medical attention. Other facilities include a fitness centre and a sauna.

Lastly, the vessel comes equipped with an oily bilge water separator, two sewage treatment plants, a ballast water treatment system, and internal sea water systems that generate sodium hypochlorite for preventing the growth of marine organisms in the onboard cooling systems.

The first UK-built vessel that complies with the IMO Polar Code, Sir David Attenborough was delivered to its new owners in 2021 and sailed on its maiden voyage to Antarctica in November of that year, arriving at Rothera Research Station in 31 days. The ship will be available year-round to the UK research community, including postgraduate trainees. Its regular operating profile will see it spend the northern summer supporting Arctic research cruises and the austral summer in Antarctica carrying out research programmes and bringing people and supplies to BAS research stations.

Click here for more news stories, features, and vessel reviews as part of this month’s focus on the research and training sector.

Sir David Attenborough
Type of vessel: Research and supply vessel
Classification: Polar Class 4; DNV Silent (R), Silent (S)
Flag: Falkland Islands
Owner: UK National Environment Research Council
Operator: British Antarctic Survey, UK
Builder: Cammell Laird, UK
Length overall: 129 metres
Beam: 24 metres
Gross tonnage: 15,000
Capacity: 2,100 cubic metres (dry cargo); 660 cubic metres (fuel)
Main engines: 4 x Rolls-Royce Bergen B33:45L6A
Propulsion: 2 x Kongsberg Promas controllable-pitch propellers
Generator: Cummins KTA38-DM1, 885 kW
Side thrusters: Tees White Gill
Cruising speed: 13 knots
Range: 19,000 nautical miles
Other electronics: Kongsberg energy management system
Winches: Kongsberg
Crane/s: 5
Other equipment installed: Air sampling facilities; aerosol sampling facilities; moonpool; Kongsberg moonpool handling unit; oily bilge water separator; 2 x sewage treatment plants; ballast water treatment system; internal sea water systems
Lifeboats: 4
Tenders: 2
Type of fuel: Diesel
Accommodation: Laboratories; 40 x single cabins; 25 x double cabins; fitness centre; sauna
Crew: 30
Passengers: 60
Operational area: Antarctica

Baird Maritime

The best maritime site on the web. The sea's our scene!