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The Mighty RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer

The RV/IB Nathaniel Photo at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Photo taken at 1 AM during the eternal light of the Antarctic summer.

© Marlo Garnsworthy

As I go about the ship, seeking interviews with those who work aboard, it strikes me that the ship itself is a character without whom our story would be impossible. Having experienced a hundred or so expeditions since it was first commissioned in 1992, the RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer would have many stories to tell if she were to speak. She has circumnavigated the Antarctic continent, sailed the wild Southern Ocean, broken ice in the Ross Sea, along the Antarctic Peninsula, and elsewhere, enjoyed the warmer climes of the Southern Pacific, and even engaged in an Arctic science cruise off Alaska.

The Palmer is named for Nathaniel Brown Palmer, a 19th century seal hunter, captain, and ship-designer and builder from Stonington, Connecticut, credited as the first American, and as one of three parties in 1820 that were the first to discover Antarctica*. Only 21 years old at the time, Palmer commanded the Hero, a sloop of only 14 meters, on a seal hunting voyage.

Though owned, operated, and crewed by Edison Chouest Offshore, the Palmer is chartered by the Antarctic Support Contract (ASC) under contract to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Classified as an Antarctic Research Vessel Ice Breaker, the RV/IB Nathaniel B. Palmer is a state-of-the-art, world-class research vessel. The Palmer is ice-classed ABS-A2, capable of breaking 3 feet of ice at a speed of 3 knots. Due to its excellent icebreaking capability, the Palmer has allowed research in areas that were previously inaccessible.

Scientific teams from diverse fields are eager to secure time aboard the Palmer, which can support projects from areas as diverse as marine biology to metrology and ice physics, oceanography (both physical and chemical) to marine geology and geophysics. The Palmer can accommodate up to 37 scientists at one time and has a crew of 22.

The labs are all situated on the Main Deck.


The Palmer has 7 labs with a total 5,600 feet of lab space:

Aft dry lab

Forward dry lab

Biology lab

Hydro lab

Wet lab (which we are using to process sediment cores)

Electronics lab

And the aquarium room (which I was declined to photograph, as we’re not using it as an aquarium room).

Starboard A-frame at left, aft A-Frame at rear, and the windows of the aft control room

Oceanographic and other equipment can be lowered from the main large A-frame at the ship’s stern, a smaller a-frame on the starboard aft, and from the Baltic Room.

The Palmer has two lifeboats, each of which can accommodate and sustain up to 76 people. There are also inflatable life rafts aboard, a small rescue boat, and two zodiacs. It also has a survey boat called the Cajun Cruncher. In fact, as you travel about the boat, you’ll see a distinct Cajun theme. The Palmer was built by North American Shipbuilding in Louisiana and displays this proud heritage in all sorts of unexpected places.

Mural in the aft control room

The Palmer has four diesel engines. It can carry more than 460,000 gallons of fuel and stay at sea for up to 75 days. It can also hold 7,200 gallons of helicopter fuel and has space for two helicopters (a helipad and a helicopter hangar). It makes its own fresh water, and trash is incinerated onboard

(except for bio and chemical waste, which is transported back to the USA for proper disposal).

Life aboard the Palmer is quite comfortable. Each stateroom, except those for the Chief Scientists and MPC (Marine Projects coordinator, which are single occupancy with an additional day room), is dual or quad occupancy and has its own bathroom. Recreational facilities include an exercise room, a sauna, 2 lounges with TV/DVD, couches, and a library, a conference room, and for those who like to play, there are foosball, darts, Ping-Pong, and cornhole, and various board games.

All I have spoken to, including scientists, support staff, and crew agree the Palmer is a very comfortable, spacious, well-equipped, and stable ship to live and work on, and like me, I think they’re all very fond of our mighty, floating home.

Interesting Facts:

  • Length: 308 feet/93.9 meters long

  • Width: 60 feet/18.3 meters wide.

  • Its two main propellers are 4 meters (13.1 feet) in diameter.

  • Over 3,000 10x40-ft steel plates & 810,000 linear feet of welding were used on the ship

  • The steel plate in the bow is 1 9/16” thick and is twice the strength of regular steel

  • The steel on the hull is made with a low-temperature alloy rated to -60° C

  • 75,000 ft. (14 miles) of pipe were used to outfit the ship

  • There are 2,700,000 feet, (511 miles) of wire inside the vessel

  • Total electrical generating capacity is 4.63 million watts (nearly 4,000 hair dryers)

  • The vessel is capable of carrying twenty, 20 ft. cargo containers

If you’d like to know more about the RV/IB N. B. Palmer or the other icebreaker chartered by the NSF, the ARSV Laurence M. Gould, you can learn more here. For more on the specs and scientific capabilities and equipment, please see here.

* Several expeditions are credited with the first sighting the continent or ice shelf within a few-month period in 1820: an expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen of the Russian Imperial Navy, one led by Edward Bransfield of the British Royal Navy, and Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer’s sailing expedition aboard the Hero.

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