Sun, Dec 20, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Krill fishing at the bottom of the world

Taiwan’s first ship to reach the Antarctic Ocean came back with 140 tonnes of krill — and possibly a secret military item

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Hai Kung, the first Taiwanese ship to make it to the Antarctic, was recently restored and can be seen at Keelung’s Bisha Wharf.

Photo: Tang Sheng-yang, Taipei Times

Taiwan in Time: Dec. 21 to Dec. 27

After a 17,000km journey having survived devastatingly strong winds in regions dubbed the “roaring 40s, furious 50s and shrieking 60s” in reference to latitudes, the 711-ton Hai Kung (海功號) trawler ship drifted in the Antarctic waters in the middle of a snowstorm.

It was Jan. 23, 1977, World Freedom Day for Taiwan and South Korea. The crew of more than 30 researchers, sailors and journalists watched emotionally as the Taiwanese flag slowly rose in the frigid wind, its bright colors punctuating the gray skies.

It had been almost two months since they left Keelung in Taiwan’s first expedition ever to the bottom of the Earth. After making several rally cries, denouncing communism, slavery and fascism and calling for world peace, the crew produced a glass bottle containing a copy of Confucius’ Age of Great Harmony (禮運大同篇), hand-written by Teng Huo-tu (鄧火土), head of the Fisheries Research Institute, and dropped it into the ocean.

The bottle was meant to be buried in Antarctica’s ice sheet, and the flag planted on land, but the ship, lacking icebreakers and other equipment to properly navigate the perilous glaciers, could only sail near the continent while hauling in massive amounts of Antarctic krill. There were an estimated 40 to 60 billion tonnes of the shrimp-like crustaceans in the ocean, which were seen as a potential protein source for Taiwan’s increasing population amid unsure times as the country’s international standing continued to falter.

Two months later, the ship returned to Keelung with 140 tonnes of the catch to great fanfare. They were heroes.

Taiwan’s development of its new fishing sources and methods became an urgent issue after the 1974 Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, where a proposal was made for a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone for coastal countries. Fishing experts were worried that it would greatly reduce the country’s traditional fishing grounds.

Members of the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (today’s Council of Agriculture) decided to act preemptively by exploring possibilities in the Antarctic, where no Taiwanese ship had ever gone.

Hai Kung was built under Teng’s supervision for this purpose, completed in July 1975. Without icebreakers, it relied on sonar technology to avoid icebergs. It embarked on its maiden voyage on Dec. 24 that year, testing different equipment in the fishing grounds north of Taiwan in the East China Sea.

One year later, Hai Kung was deemed ready to make the big trip. It departed Keelung on Dec. 2, reaching Cape Town on Dec. 28, where it underwent more reinforcements and repairs before heading further south a week later.

Journalist Lu I-ming (呂一銘) recalls in his book about the journey passing through the various storm zones, where waves as high as mountains would hit the ship relentlessly, tilting it as much as 40 degrees. On Jan. 10, 1976, the crew shed tears of joy as they finally reached the Antarctic Ocean.

Lu writes that the ship almost got turned back at one point because of a telegram sent from Taiwan ordering the crew not to go further south than 50 degrees, which was revealed later to be a typo, as the officials actually meant 70 degrees.

The return journey was just as perilous, but the crew made it safely back to Cape Town on Feb. 17. Here, the ship reportedly received a mysterious crate from Taiwan’s ambassador to South Africa to bring back home with them. Several crew members later reported that they felt that the ship had a secret mission, especially when they were ordered to depart straight for Taiwan, without stops, before the sun even came up. Even the journalists, who had planned to visit England, were ordered to return home immediately.

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