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27 January 2023

Though the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky did not meet her estimated time of arrival in Cape Town, she continues to chug her way down the west coast with her controversial seismic equipment aboard.

According to ship tracker Marine Traffic, the Russian seismic survey vessel was expected to dock in Cape Town at 11am on Thursday, January 26. But at the scheduled time, the Port of Cape Town saw no sign of the ship — instead becoming the setting of protests against the vessel’s ongoing use of South African facilities en route to the Southern Ocean.

At 10am, about 50 activists came together on the steps opposite the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa. Where one might have expected to see art enthusiasts and tourists, this group of campaigners gathered to whale song played through a megaphone — and held up colourful signs reading: “Go Home” and “You are not welcome”.

Meeting at the popular V&A Waterfront tourist attraction, the mixed “unwelcoming committee” included Greenpeace Cape Town volunteers and members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cape Town and The Green Connection.

The campaigners made their way to the National Ports Authority on South Arm Road, waving placards. Here, they shouted slogans targeting the impact and motives behind the vessel’s seismic activities in the Antarctic.

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A young activist leapt into the water at the Port of Cape Town with a placard to the cheers of fellow protesters at the end of a march against the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

Some jumped into the icy water, holding a “Hands Off Antarctica!” placard.

In the wake of Our Burning Planet investigations that exposed Russian oil and gas surveys, as well as marine noise, in the Southern Ocean, the event marked the first international protests to challenge these issues since a 1998 mining ban became law.

The blue and white-hulled Karpinsky is owned by the Polar Marine Geosurvey Expedition (PMGE), a subsidiary of the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo.

The investigative series details how the Karpinsky and her seismic airguns have travelled south annually for about 25 years, firing shots throughout the sensitive Antarctic region in search of hydrocarbons, the components that may form valuable oil and gas deposits.

The international mining ban does make provisions to allow scientific research under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. But any stage of prospecting linked to commercial intent is prohibited, argue Antarctic governance experts.

As defined by an abandoned 1988 Antarctic mining pact, “prospecting” aims to identify “areas of mineral resource potential for possible exploration and development”.

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‘Hands Off Antarctica!’ protesters gathered at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and walked to the National Ports Authority to demand that the Akademik Alexander Karpinsky be denied entry. (Photo: Jamie Venter)

Rosgeo has repeatedly told Our Burning Planet that its Antarctic work is simply standard geological research allowed for scientific purposes under the mining ban. “[However], there seems to be a thin line between science and the early stages of prospecting for mineral resources,” says Judy Scott-Goldman, spokesperson for XR Cape Town.

Read the full article by Jamie Venter for Daily Maverick here