Its days of arduous polar voyages, dodging icebergs and riding out Magellanesque storms, are over. After 25 missions to Antarctica, the Research Vessel (RV) Humboldt will make no further trips to the Machu Picchu Scientific Base, Peru´s enclave at the South Pole. The task will fall to the Carrasco, a modern Peruvian Navy ship designed and built especially for the purpose. However, before retiring the Humboldt has begun a new stage: participating in scientific research about the Peruvian ocean and its resources.
“When Peru decided to go to Antarctica in 1988, it did so with a research vessel. Other countries in the region sent icebreakers to make their presence felt; Peru´s interest was scientific rather than territorial. But many adjustments to the ship were necessary”, recalls Javier Gaviola, President of the Governing Council of the Peruvian Marine Institute (IMARPE), who, before being appointed to his current position, embarked on three missions to Antarctica aboard the vessel as a crew member, and one as commander.
Among its many activities during voyages to the South Pole, the Humboldt played a key role in research into the krill, a crustacean similar to the shrimp and very important in the food chain of the Antarctic open sea. It is very small, but very nutritious, and has enormous ecological importance. Many marine species depend on it, from fish and penguins, to large cetaceans.
But the task of doing research in Antarctica is by no means simple: “You have to learn how to navigate through storms in very changeable weather, something that is unusual along our coastline. You have to learn how to ride the waves with the ship, how to zigzag to avoid them. The waves can be big enough to break the craft up”, recalls the ex-commander of this ship that was launched in 1978, ten years before it began its missions to Antarctica.
Science in service of fishing
Gaviola emphasizes that during this new stage, the Humboldt´s activities along the Sea of Grau will be more intensive. She will spend more time working together with the IMARPE fleet, which consists of two other large ships—the RV José Olaya and the RV Flores Portugal (although both are smaller than the Humboldt)—and five smaller vessels assigned to coastal laboratories in Ilo, Chimbote, Santa Rosa (Chiclayo), Huanchaco (Trujillo), and Pisco.
The work will complement that of the Peruvian Navy´s three hydro-oceanographic ships—the Zimic, the Melo, and the Carrillo. “The mission is the same as it has always been: to undertake research into the sea and its resources so that fishing development is sustainable. The Humboldt will now be available to us twelve months of the year. Previously we only had her for nine months because she had to go to Antarctica. That will now be the job of the Carrasco”, says Gaviola.
The work of the ships is essential. It is IMARPE´s raison d'être. It is complemented by research conducted in laboratories along the coast with samples taken from the industrial fleet. “It is about bringing control and order to the use of the resources: so that exploitation is not excessive”, points out Gaviola, who adds, “the idea is that the ships sail at the same time, so they can cover sectors in parallel and obtain information simultaneously, but from different locations”.
The ship and the Humboldt Plan
The information gathered and processed by RV Humboldt was important for the preparation of the Strategic Action Plan, an initiative driven by the GEF Humboldt project with the support of UNDP. Through this, the governments of Peru and Chile share information and coordinate actions to best leverage the resources of this ecosystem that is shared by both countries, and is fed by the marine current that leaves the South Pole and almost reaches Ecuador.
“As the technology advances, new forms of research appear. Today we do it through an ecosystem vision. We go deeper into the ecological aspects. There is a good strategic plan that has led to the completion of this first stage of the project. Now it’s time to implement the results of the diagnosis”, concludes Javier Gaviola.