Death, iceberg collision mark ‘difficult’ Antarctic expedition

2018 brought grim reminders of the hardships of working in the South Pole

April 21, 2018 11:27 pm | Updated 11:27 pm IST - NEW DELHI

In February 2018, 30 Indian scientists on an expedition to one of India’s base stations in Antarctica had to be evacuated after their ship collided with an iceberg. The hired Russian ship, m.v. Ivan Papanin , was on its way to Maitri, India’s inland research base, from Bharati, another India station. The impact punctured a three - foot hole into the hull and led to water seeping in.

While there were no reports of injury, and the scientists were flown back to the Bharati station, one of those scientists — Subhajit Sen — was involved a month later in another, unrelated accident at India’s second research station, Maitri, and succumbed to his injuries. His body is in now in transit via ship, and is expected to reach Cape Town, South Africa, this week from where, after a post-mortem, it will be flown to his native Kolkata.

‘First time’

While India’s scientific expeditions to Antarctica since 1981 have had their share of misadventures, this is the “first time”, according to an official, that m.v.Ivan Papanin , a 28-year-old ice-breaker owned by Murmansk Shipping and frequently commissioned by India, suffered from a breach of this kind. “It struck an iceberg or some other underground structure and the scientists had to be evacuated by helicopter. Luckily, there wasn’t an oil spill or else, even though we are using a Russian ship, India would have been guilty of polluting Antarctica and violating the Antarctica treaty,” said M. Ravichandran, director, National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research, the Goa-based organisation charged with coordinating the annual exercise.

Another Russian ship had to be hurriedly arranged and the Indian scientists used it to continue on their expedition to base station Maitri, which is located about 100 km inland via a seven-day ship journey from Bharati.

Normally, Indian scientists from several research institutions are selected every year to go in batches to Antarctica from November to March, the only clement months when ships and chartered flights can reach the continent — the ice being too thick other wise.

The late Mr. Sen, a student-scientist of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bhubaneswar, was injured on March 26 when he was helping unload a trailer, as big as a train coach and used to store cargo. One of the persons handling the trailer lost control of its brakes, crushing him. Though he was taken to the hospital aboard the ship and given emergency care, he did not survive. “Few realise the hardship of working in Antarctica. This year’s events have made it a particularly difficult year,” said Dr. Ravichandran.

Harsh realities

Not all of the bodies of those deceased in Antarctica necessarily make it home. Kuldeep Wali, a 57- year-old meteorologist with the India Meteorological Department and part of India’s 2008-9 expedition, died of a heart failure in June 2009 at Maitri. That’s the period when impenetrable ice, and gales, prevent outgoing traffic. As a result, Wali had to be cremated at the station itself.

Inspite of regular expeditions to Antarctica, India doesn’t yet have an ice-breaker ship of its own. India’s plans to acquire a ₹1,000-crore polar research vehicle (PRV) — a ship that can cut through ice sheets and glaciers — has been on the anvil since 2005.

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