Wyatt Earp continuing mission

This article has photo gallery Published on SBLT Samuel Penfold (author), LCDR Michael Kumpis (photographer), Ms Nisha Harris (photographer)

Location(s): Casey Station, Antarctica

Topic(s): Hydrography and Oceanography, Naval Heritage and History, Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY

Antarctic Survey Vessel Wyatt Earp passing an iceberg in Antarctica. (photo: LCDR Michael Kumpis)
Antarctic Survey Vessel Wyatt Earp passing an iceberg in Antarctica.

The Royal Australian Navy's Antarctic Survey Vessel Wyatt Earp is currently conducting surveying operations based out of Davis, one of Australia’s Antarctic Stations.

The vessel is conducting biological, oceanographic and meteorological experiments and observations as part of Operation SOUTHERN DISCOVERY.

Wyatt Earp is fitted with equipment such as multi-beam echo sounders, sediment grabs, sub-bottom profilers and underwater cameras.

The work the vessel completes whilst in Antarctica will directly contribute to safe navigation around Australian Stations, particularly to aid some of the cruise ships that navigate around un-surveyed waters in these regions.

The team on the vessel are conducting bathymetric surveying of the approaches to Davis Station in order to facilitate improved charting in this area.

During this survey, data will also be collected by Australian Antarctic Division and Geoscience Australia for the purpose of assessing the current status of benthic habitat in the vicinity of Davis Station.  Data from these hydrographic surveys will assist with safe passage of shipping transiting this area.

Wyatt Earp is loaded onto Australia’s Antarctic Flagship, the RSV Aurora Australis, which then makes the journey from Hobart to the Australian Antarctic Stations across the Southern Ocean. Winds here can reach up to 120-150 kilometres per hour, coupled with storms that can generate seas of up to 10 metres.

The Antarctic Survey Vessel is the namesake of the polar exploration ship Wyatt Earp, built between 1918 and 1919, which has a Royal Australian Navy history. This vessel was used by the American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth in four successful explorations of the Antarctic between 1933 and 1938.

Purchased by the Commonwealth in 1939, her name was changed to HMAS Wongola, and she then served in the war as a store and ammunition carrier, then as the examination vessel based at Port Adelaide and Whyalla.

Upon her recommissioning in 1947, she was renamed once more to HMAS Wyatt Earp, and refitted for Antarctic missions from Adelaide.

Naming a ship Wyatt Earp was so improbable that people often doubted its existence, said Manager Navy Badges, Mr Paul Burnett.

“She was ultimately given the nickname ‘Twerp’, but sadly, during the first challenging voyage south, the ship experienced such violent and uncomfortable movements that it was decided that it would never be used again for these kinds of voyages,” he said.

There are two known unofficial badges for HMAS Wyatt Earp. The first was recorded in photographs taken before its final Antarctic voyage in 1947.

The badge design is an image of the ship steaming through clear Antarctic water, with three penguins on an ice sheet in front of her. This design was never officially approved but did appear on her lifebuoys.

The second badge originated from the ship’s officers, and was constructed by Mr George Dutch, a naval draftsman.

“This badge shows an image of Earp on skis in appropriate attire for the Antarctic background, flanked by two penguins but was never officially approved and was later shelved and filed for historical use only as the ship was paid off in June, just six months later,” Mr Burnett said.

She was sold to a coastal fishing firm, where she was ultimately sunk during a storm off the Queensland coast on 24 January 1959.

No crew were lost, as the six Australians and 12 Papua New Guineans reached the shore using her hatch covers as life rafts.

The current crew of the Antarctic Survey Vessel Wyatt Earp will continue research activities in Antarctica until their return onboard RSV Aurora Australis in the middle of March.