2008: A One-Time Fishing Vessel Starts a New Life as a Brazilian Oceanographic Research Ship

September 3, 2008

A 44-year-old vessel was acquired by the Brazilian Navy for service as an oceanographic research ship in the Antarctic region. This addition to that navy’s Brazilian Antarctic Program was renamed the Almirante Maximiano in honor of Admiral Maximiano Eduardo da Silva Fonseca (1919-1998).

A longtime Brazilian naval officer, Maximiano da Fonesca served as his country’s Minister of the Navy from 1979 to 1984. (In 1999, the functions and responsibilities of the Ministry of the Navy were merged into the present-day Ministry of Defense.) The key accomplishments of Maximiano da Fonesca as Minister of the Navy included establishing the Brazilian Antarctic Program to provide operational support for the country’s research efforts in the southernmost part of the world.

The research vessel named after him had been built at Todd Pacific Shipyards (known as Vigor Shipyards since 2011) in Seattle, Washington. This ship was launched on February 13, 1974. Over the years, she was used for various commercial operations under such names as Ocean Empress, Naeraberg, American Empress, Maureen Sea, Scotoil I, and Theriot Offshore I. At one point, the ship was used as a trawler (fishing vessel) in Norway.

Since being acquired by the Brazilian Navy, the Almirante Maximiano (H-41) — modified to better withstand freezing temperatures and navigate through sea ice — has been extensively used for surveys and other types of scientific marine research in the Southern Hemisphere’s polar waters on behalf of the Brazilian Antarctic Program. There are five research laboratories altogether on board Almirante Maximiano, and this vessel has been equipped as well to accommodate speedboats and as many as two helicopters for service as needed.  

Along with her fellow Brazilian Navy oceanographic research ship Ary Rongel (H-44), the Almirante Maximiano has also provided high-priority logistical support for Brazil’s year-round Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station and several seasonal field camps in Antarctica. A large part of that logistical support has entailed delivering equipment and other supplies to those facilities on a regular basis.

The Almirante Maximiano has also participated in a wide range of international search-and-find missions in the often treacherous and even deadly waters of the Antarctic region. In 2019, for example, the ship played a major role in efforts to locate a Hercules C-130 plane of the Chilean Air Force. This aircraft (carrying had 17 crew members and 21 passengers) had flown out of the city of Punta Arenas in southern Chile for a support mission at the country’s leading Antarctic station (Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva), but disappeared from radars about 90 minutes after its departure.

While searching in waters that are approximately 280 nautical miles (518 kilometers) south of the Argentine city of Ushuaia, the crew of the Almirante Maximiano found sections of the missing plane and what were likely various other objects from it. As the Brazilian Ministry of Defense subsequently confirmed, crew members from the Almirante Maximiano boarded two of the ship’s speedboats and made their way closer to the debris to collect as much of it as possible.

An account of life on board the Almirante Maximiano was posted online that same year by one of the researchers of the Portuguese Polar Program (PROPOLAR) who traveled on the ship to study phytoplankton (microscopic plants in ocean and freshwater ecosystems) and climate variability in Antarctic waters. This trip took place a year after those PROPLAR researcher had traveled on the Almirante Maximiano.

“The truth is that, at first glance, little has changed,” noted the PROPLAR website account of that 2019 expedition. “The ship continues to cross the [Drake Passage between South America’s Cape Horn and the Shetland Islands of Antarctica] imposingly, Brazilian accents and rhythms continue to echo through its corridors and black beans and rice continue to guide our diet.” This PROPLAR account also noted the affectionate nickname given to the Almirante Maximiano by Brazilian Navy personnel – “Uncle Max.”

Photo Credit: Navy of Brazil

For more information on the Almirante Maximiano (H-41), please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazilian_research_ship_Almirante_Maximiano

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