JDF JapanDefenseFocus No.70


Icebreaker Shirase
- Navigating through Icy Waters -

Icebreaker Shirase - Navigating Through Icy Waters -

What is Shirase?

Shirase is the only icebreaker operated by the MSDF and it is primarily used for supporting the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition. The mission is to transport supplies and personnel, and it also supports observations and station setup in the Antarctic. The ship is based out of Yokosuka District. The transport capacity of Shirase has greatly expanded Japan’s research expedition in Antarctica by enabling the Showa Station to upgrade to modern facilities and by making the construction of the Asuka Station and Dome Fuji Station possible. Initially, icebreaker Soya carried out transport for Japan’s Antarctic expedition. Later these operations were carried over to the icebreaker Fuji and the first generation Shirase. At this point in time, the second generation Shirase has been on service.

Activities of the 56th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition

The 56th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition was held from November 11th, 2014 to April 1st, 2015. While en route to the Antarctic, Shirase supported the marine observations for identifying changes in the environment by collecting samples of seawater and plankton.

On December 15th, Shirase entered the floating ice zone. On the 17th, it reached the fast ice edge where it carried out ramming operations in which it pushed onto the thick layer of ice and used its weight to break up the ice and gradually move forward by repeating this process. On January 12th, Shirase reached at a location 500 meters from the Showa Station.

Shirase transported approx. 600 tons of fuel by using a pipeline. CH-101 helicopter and snow vehicles were used for transporting 71 researchers and approx. 400 tons of necessities such as supplies for research and fresh food.

Shirase's voyage spanned approx. 33,000 km, which is roughly one trip around the world, lasting 142 days.

Specifications of Shirase

Displacement Standard 12,650 tons
Capacity MSDF personnel of about 180 and researchers of 80
Length 138 meters
Beam 28 meters
Draft 15.9 meters
Speed 19.5 knots
Onboard Aircraft Two large transport helicopters (CH-101×2)

Interview with Captain Hisanobu Oga, Commander of Shirase(Support for 57th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition)

Q1. What is the mission of Shirase?

A1. Our mission is to transport the personnel and supplies needed for observations carried out by Japan in the Antarctic as stipulated in the Self-Defense Forces Act.

Q2. What does Shirase do at ports of call?

A2. Each year we always make a stop in Australia on both legs of the journey to the Antarctic, where we coordinate closely with officials locally on operations such as the boarding or disembarkation of researchers as well as the loading of supplies, food and fuel needed for research. Local public safety officials and officials of the Australian Navy provide a great deal of assistance, including a berth for Shirase and harbor pilots. We are very grateful for this help.

Q3. Tell us about a particularly memorable experience from your missions.

A3. Japan’s Showa Station is located on an island in Antarctica’s Lutzow-Holm Bay. In recent years, this stretch of sea has experienced thicker and stronger sea ice. Last year we faced extremely difficult conditions and carried out a record high number of rams totaling 5,406 times. The multi-year ice belt area where ice accumulates year after year now reaches approx. 20 km, which has made icebreaking ship operations quite difficult, as it took us nearly two weeks to make it through.


Q4. Is there a memorable episode you have experienced in the Antarctic?

A4. We conduct ramming within the multi-year ice belt area, but typically there are days when we cannot even make one kilometer of progress. At times like this, before we know it we are overtaken by penguins that approach Shirase from the stern. Even though we are passed by these penguins, we still persistently keep up with ramming so that we can reach the Showa Station. Incidentally, there is a provision in the Antarctic Treaty that says we cannot be closer than five meters to penguins and 15 meters to seals. There are various rules in place to protect this environment, so we carry out our activities fully mindful of abiding by these rules.

Q5. What are your future ambitions for Shirase and support for Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition?

A5. Shirase operates alone from the time it leaves port to the time it returns home, and even more so in the Antarctic, so there is no other vessel available to help in case of an injury or other situation. Therefore, our goal is to carry out work safely and with certainty to ensure that we fulfill our mission and everyone comes home safe and sound.

Profile of Captain Oga

August 2006 Operations Officer of Shirase
Support for 48th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition
July 2007 Commander of DD Haruyuki
July 2008 Outfitting Officer of Shirase
May 2009 Navigating Officer of Shirase
Support for 51st Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition
Support for 52nd Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition
August 2011 Commander of DD Makinami
(Counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden)
July 2013 First Officer of Shirase
Support for 55th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition
August 2014 Chief of Antarctic Research Support Section, Operations Support Division, Maritime Staff Office
August 2015 Commander of Shirase
Support for 57th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition

※DD: Destroyer

  • back
  • next