SAVED from the Scrap Yard

by Julian Ryall
SAVED from the Scrap Yard Public flock to legendary Antarctic icebreaker

Moored at Funabashi Port, the orange hull of the Shirase rises solid and uncompromising. The immense power that the vessel exudes comes as no surprise, given that it was designed to drive through sheets of ice up to 5 meters thick during its 25 years of supporting Japan’s expeditions to the hostile waters of the Antarctic.

In retirement, the Shirase probably finds the choppy waters of Tokyo Bay fairly tame. But at least she is still afloat; this long-serving legend of the Southern Ocean came perilously close to being scrapped. The weather and environment-forecasting company Weathernews instead purchased the vessel and opened it up to the public, with three groups of visitors a day now permitted to explore a ship that was home to a crew of 170 plus 60 observation experts when it was operational.

The tour includes a stroll across the aft helicopter landing deck—an area of 1,000m2 and with a hatch from where observation balloons could be released to monitor the upper atmosphere. The hangar was able to store three helicopters and was watched over by a control room with a revolving radar antenna inside a dome.

The Global Ice Center has a huge map of the highest latitudes of the planet, with the coastlines that ring the North Pole marked out—the farthest reaches of the North American continent, Greenland and the coast of Russia.


TFMSIn the bow area—the business end of an icebreaker—massive cranes loaded all the food and other equipment used on an Antarctic expedition into the hatches. Ropes as thick as a man’s arm are coiled neatly on the deck—although it was not always that serene aboard. On December 12, 2001 the ship recorded a roll of 53 degrees from the upright. Rolls aboard Shirase are more extreme than other vessels because it does not have a stabilizer beneath its hull due to the danger of encountering underwater ice.

Inside, the ship has a hospital, complete with operating table, a dentist’s room and barber’s shop.

The kitchen is relatively spacious and well appointed, but must have been difficult for the chefs to work in during heavy seas. Huge cauldrons were used to prepare the rice; the toasters could have grilled sliced bread from entire loaves, and there is even an ice-cream machine. In one corner is a unit where the kitchen staff grew bean sprouts, a welcome addition to a diet of primarily frozen foodstuffs. The mess area houses a small exhibition marking the contribution to exploration of Nobu Shirase, although the ship is not directly named after him. Japan’s equivalent of Robert Falcon Scott or Roald Amundsen, he was the father of Japan’s Antarctic exploration efforts.

A lieutenant in the Japanese army, Shirase asked the government for funds to explore the Polar Regions, but was turned down. Undeterred, he raised the money himself and set out from Tokyo Bay aboard the wooden sailing ship the Kainan Maru in December 1910. In 1956, 20 years after his death, the ice sheet at the head of Lutzow-Holm Bay in Antarctica was named the Shirase Glacier.

But the ship has much more within its hull than memories of the past.

Three spacious compartments towards the stern contain the core components of Weathernews’ environmental and meteorological projects.

The Global Ice Center has a huge map of the highest latitudes of the planet, with the coastlines that ring the North Pole marked out—the farthest reaches of the North American continent, Greenland and the coast of Russia.

A second room is dedicated to monitoring global seismic activity, with movements in the Earth’s crust plotted on screens. The final room is for observations of volcanic eruptions and tsunami, with computers providing simulations of volcanic ash distribution and tsunami, while a network of 500 Web cameras across Japan keep watch on the nation’s most active peaks.

The final stop on the tour is the bridge, which runs the full width of the vessel and looks out over the placid waters of Tokyo Bay. There is not an iceberg in sight.

http://shirase.info/