An Antarctic homage: 30 years since the sinking of Nella Dan

Tasmania has hosted many of the most important ships that have ventured to Antarctica. In December 1987 one of these ships, the Nella Dan, ended its journey when it ran aground at Buckles Bay, Macquarie Island.

Nella Dan was a Danish ice breaker built in 1961 for J. Lauritzen company, with input from the Australian Antarctic Division. It was named after Nel Law, the wife of the director of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE). Nel was the first Australian woman to travel to Antarctica. The Nella Dan made 125 voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic between 1961 and 1987.

The little red ship was on a re-supply visit to Macquarie Island when bad weather pushed it onto the rocks. The crew and passengers were all seen safely off the ship. After efforts to salvage equipment and remove oil that would pose an environmental threat, the ship was towed out to deep water and scuttled.

Nella Dan, grounded off Macquarie Island TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 2b

As the Tasmanian state government does not have much of a role in Antarctic expeditions, the state archives does not hold many records on this event. However, we were able to find a few notes and photographs in a file of reports of the resulting oil spill from the Parks and Wildlife service. Over several days the rangers on Macquarie Island monitored the effects of oil washing in over the beaches on the plant and animal life of the coastline.

Nella Dan, grounded off Macquarie Island TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 1

Efforts were made to remove oil from the ship before it could leak into the water. Crews pumped oil back to tanks on Macquarie Island, and a lot of the damaging waste was removed. Although the incident still produced a moderate oil spill, favourable winds washed most of it out to sea, and damage was limited to the inhabitants of the rock pools along a stretch of coast. Birds and other larger animals were closely watched, particularly those that picked off the dead fish and molluscs washed onto the beach. Luckily they were largely unaffected.

Timeline of Nella Dan Shipwreck TAHO: AB567-9-6 p. 101

Nella Dan was much loved by her former crews, and has been honoured by several memorials. She was replaced by the Aurora Australis, that great orange ship that is such a regular visitor to Hobart’s port.

Hobart as an Antarctic port

One of the first Antarctic ships to use Tasmania’s ports was Captain John Biscoe’s brig Tula, which landed in Hobart after circumnavigating Antarctica in 1832. Interest increased in the area with the growing industries of sealing and whaling. Expeditions were launched with the mixed motivations of money, science and the glory of discovery.

As tribute to the Nella Dan, we’ve put together a gallery of some of the most important ships in the history of Antarctic discovery.

The Astrolabe and Zélée in the ice / Les corvettes louvoyant dans l’intérieur de la banquise le 5 Février 1838 parages Antarctica dessiné par E. Goupil; lith. par Sabatier; navires par Mayer. ALMFA: TAHO
Dumont D’Urville’s Astrolabe and Zélée visited Antarctica and Tasmania in 1838. The Astrolabe / L’Astrolabe faisant de l’eau sur un glacon, 6 Fevrier 1838 ALMFA: TAHO
James Clark Ross’s expedition from 1839-1843 travelled on the Erebus and Terror, the same ships which later became trapped in the Arctic in the fateful expedition of Tasmania’s former Governor Sir John Franklin. [South Polar Barrier Erebus and Terror], ALMFA: TAHO
The Norwegian expedition aboard the Southern Cross in 1899 was the first to spend a winter in Antarctica, and to use dogs. Tasmanian scientist Louis Bernacchi was a member of this party. Southern Cross, 1875, W.L Crowther Library: TAHO
Evans, Bernacchi & Fougner, Southern Cross Antarctic Expedition [1899], ALMFA: TAHO
Roald Amundsen, came to Hobart on the Fram after leading the first party to reach the South Pole. Fram – 1912: TAHO
The ship Aurora in Hobart in 1915 after Douglas Mawson’s dramatic expedition. Mawson’s party encountered disaster and starvation after one of the party, and a sledge with most of their provisions and dogs fell into a crevasse. Mawson’s remaining companion, Xavier Mertz, died from eating dog liver, and Mawson missed the ship when it returned to pick him up in January of 1913. He had to remain for another winter on the ice. Aurora, W. L Crowther Library: TAHO

Further reading:  Butler, Rowan, Breaking the ice (Sutherland, N.S.W. : Albatross Books, 1988.1988)

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Author: Jess Walters

Jess is an archivist with the State Library and Archive Service, and is an acting curator of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts.

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