Antarctica next on explorer's list

  • 2002-03-28
  • Aleksei Gunter

A group of Estonian enthusiasts is preparing to visit the penguins, icebergs and whales of Antarctica and set up a permanent research station.

Mart Saarso, captain of the yacht Lennuk, which sailed around the world under the Estonian flag last year, says it's possible to start the four-year expedition to Antarctica in 2005.

"As the expedition plan is under construction, it's premature to talk about the specific tasks of Estonian researchers," he said. "But judging by our experience, the possible topics of research would be the lakes and glaciers of Antarctica."

Some of the expedition members have already signed on and there are several volunteers eager to join, Saarso said. The team would consist of a captain, two sailors, a mechanic, a doctor, a cook and five scientists.

"We also want to take one cameraman who would make a documentary film for schools," said Saarso.

He said the reasons for the voyage were simple to state, but harder to achieve.

"Every country should contribute to the research of how to save (the Earth's natural resources), and how to use them (wisely) in the future," said Saarso.

Saarso is one of the leaders of the Polar Club, a group of former Antarctica researchers working at the Estonian Sea Museum in Tallinn. He also works at Estonia's Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The estimated cost of the 11-member expedition to Antarctica is 20 million kroons ($1.12 million) to 30 million kroons.

"For that sum we would buy all the necessary equipment, build a small ship and work for three seasons during the Antarctic summer," said Saarso.

Dudley Dix, a ship engineer from South Africa, agreed to design the 30-ton ship.

So far Saarso has been unable to find private funding for the expedition and he says he hopes to get some money from the state.

"The project's business plan is not ready yet, so we have not started any talks," said Saarso.

Andres Tarand, an Estonian MP and chair of the Moderates, spent a winter in Antarctica in the 1960s. He said Estonia had a strong foundation of Antarctic research that dates back to the Soviet era.

"Why not continue it?" said Tarand.

The Estonian base would be situated next to Terra Nova Bay, an Italian research base in the Ross Sea. The region is ice-free in the summer and has relatively calm winds, according to Saarso. Italian researchers have promised to help their Estonian colleagues settle in, he added.Scientific research began in Antarctica on its present scale during the International Geophysical Year in 1957. Since then continuous research by several nations has come close to completing a reconnaissance of the continent and its surrounding oceans. At the moment there are 42 year-round and 38 summer-only research bases on the continent.

One of the best-known Estonian scientists was Enn Kaup, a pioneering Antarctic lakes researcher.

Fabian Gottlieb Bellingshausen, who discovered Antarctica in 1821, was born in Lahetaguse village on the Estonian island of Saaremaa.

In 2001 Estonia joined the International Antarctic Treaty, which states that the continent is not open to territorial claims and must be used only for scientific work.