The Japanese icebreaker Shirase left Tokyo in mid November to make its 21st trip to Antarctica. Since it went into service in 1983, succeeding the earlier icebreakers Soya and Fuji, the ship has travelled 920,000 km.
Two weeks after leaving Japan, the Shirase put into Fremantle, Australia, to collect 70 members of the Japanese expedition and deliver them to Showa Base. Flying to Antarctica would be even more time effective for scientists, but Showa Base, located on Ongul Island off the Antarctic coast, does not have a suitable runway for large intercontinental planes.
Sick or injured Showa staff have to endure a lengthy sea voyage on the Shirase to get medical care in Cape Town.
During its commission, the Shirase has been a strong and powerful vessel, and on occasion has fought its way through ice to come to the aid of foreign ships. But the ice has taken a heavy toll and the ship has been beset with minor aging problems and 2007 is set down as the end of the ship's serviceable life. Plans to build a new icebreaker, which would take at least four years, have been put on
hold because of budget constraints. It would cost around 52 billion yen to build a new Antarctic ship and equip it with two helicopters.
Scientists are concerned that Government delays in approving a budget for a new ship may lead to the suspension of the Japanese Antarctic programme, most of which relies heavily on support from the Shirase, and that this in turn could damage Japan's credibility in the eyes of the International scientific community.
"From the stance of a founding signatory of the Antarctic Treaty, Japan just can't quit," said Masayoshi Murayama, who has wintered in Antarctica three times as expedition leader and is now professor emeritus at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo. The 85-year-old explorer took part in seven Antarctic
expeditions, including the first in 1956 during which Showa Base was constructed. Murayama was leader of the third winter expedition team that rescued the two Sakhalin dogs, Taro and Jiro. The dogs had been taken to the Antarctic by an earlier Japanese team who were forced to abandon them at the base in 1958. Miraculously, the dogs survived the long abandonment.
This season six Japanese scientists, who will be undertaking deep ice drilling at Dome Fuji station in the Antarctic Interior, will board a charter flight in Cape Town destined for the Russian Novolazarevskaya Base. From there, five will be lifted by a ski equipped Dornier plane to a point some 430 km north of Dome Fuji station, where they will be met by eight Japanese winter-over staff on snow toboggans.
At the end of the season, the 13 men will make a seven day trip on snow toboggans back to the put-in site. Four will then return to the Russian Base in the Dornier but the others will continue on snow toboggans to Showa Base, about a month's drive from Dome Fuji.