USCG POLAR STAR REACHED THE PLANET’S SOUTHERMOST NAVIGABLE WATERS
Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star has set a new world record as they reached the southernmost navigable region on earth.
At 12:55 p.m., New Zealand time, the nearly 400-foot icebreaker reached a position of 78 degrees, 44 minutes, 1.32 seconds south latitude off Antarctica’s coast, approximately 500 yards from the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. This distance surpassed the current?Guinness World Record holder, the Russian Spirit of Enderby. The Polar Star’s sister ship, the Polar Sea, set a previous record.
An expedition to the Bay of Whales, Antarctica on Feb. 17 Polar Star’s commanding officer, Capt. William Woityra, announced to the crew they had crossed the southernmost point. Excitement aboard only intensified when it was later confirmed that they had broken the record for the farthest point reached.
Polar Star, the United States’ only active heavy icebreaker, departed Seattle on its nearly three-month voyage and arrived in Antarctica last month. The cutter was there for its 25th year to support Operation Deep Freeze, an annual mission to resupply American scientists doing research near the South Pole. During Polar Star’s transit to and from the Bay of Whales, the cutter crew surveyed 456 miles of the ice shelf for potential future navigational use. The voyage enabled the crew of approximately 160, whose primary area of operation was McMurdo Sound, to see a different part of Antarctica.
“The Ross Shelf was so beautiful,” said Lt.j.g. Lauren Kowalski, Polar Star’s assistant operations officer. “We could see the wall of ice coming out of the water with caverns and hues of blue and white. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The Ross Shelf creates the Bay of Whales and is a huge ice block about the size of France. Its thickness in some areas can be as much as 2,500 feet.
This huge milestone by Polar Star follows last year’s major achievement of reaching the northernmost point on the globe. Kowalski is one of the handful of servicemembers who have been a part of both record-breaking voyages.
Now more than ever, areas of the Ross Shelf are navigable due to ice melt over time, and ice mass now deviate as much as 13 miles from positions shown on official charts. A Polar Star survey of nearly 460 miles of the area will likely result in updates to those charts.
In 1908, Ernest Shackleton gave the Bay of Whales its name during the Nimrod Expedition due to the numerous whales he and his crew saw. Three years later, Roald Amundsen established a base camp in the bay, from which he set out on his successful endeavor to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Years later, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd established Little America in the Bay of Whales during his first, second, and third Antarctic expeditions, exploring more than 60% of the Antarctic continent.
“The crew of Polar Star is proud to follow in the footsteps of legendary Antarctic explorers like Shackleton, Amundsen, and Byrd,” Woityra said. “Even today, more than a century later, we carry on that legacy of exploration, reaching new places, and expanding human understanding of our planet.”
“From sailing the furthest north last year and this accomplishment this year, I’m excited to see what Polar Star does next,” Kowalski said.
Commissioned in 1976, the Polar Atar was built by Lockheed Shipbuilding and Construction Company of Seattle, Washington along with sister ship, USCGC Polar Sea.
Over the course of its service life, Polar Star steamed in all five oceans, made calls in more than 60 ports across six continents; circumnavigated North America, South America, and Antarctica (likely the first such circumnavigation since 1843 as well as the first to do so completely poleward of 60o); rounded Cape Horn, transited the North West Passage, and circumnavigated Earth.
(Source: USGS/Pacific Maritime/Wikipedia – Image: USCGC Polar Star icebreaker sits outside McMurdo Station, Antarctica/USCG/Mariana O’Leary)