Polar ship emerges from the depths

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A Norwegian-Belgian polar and whaling ship that sank off northern Norway during World War II has given rise to everything from a specially brewed beer to royal patronage, as its wreckage undergoes salvage attempts and inspires a replica being built at Boom in Belgium.

The sunken 'Belgica' has attracted divers for years. Now it may be raised, and sent to Belgium. PHOTO: Kyrre Ingebrethsen

Norway’s own polar heroes Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen reportedly met on board the Belgica, reports newspaper Harstad Tidende, which has followed developments around the sunken ship for the past few years. The Belgica is said to be the first ship that spent a winter in Antarctica and it made several scientific voyages in the Arctic at the beginning of the last century.

The vessel, built in Norway in 1884 to hunt bottlenose whale, was sold to Adrien de Gerlache of Belgium in 1896 and that’s when her polar expedition history began. He led an expedition for the Belgian Navy to Antarctica, with Amundsen on board as first mate. For the next decade the vessel sailed from the far south to the far north, visiting northeast Greenland, Svalbard and Franz Josefs Land. Plans for mapping of the Russian Arctic ended when the vessel got trapped in the ice.

Queen Paola of Belgium.

In 1916 the ship returned to Norwegian ownership, when Det Norske Spitsbergensyndikat bought theBelgica to carry coal between Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland. In 1918 the re-named Isfjord was sold again, to Kristian Holst of Harstad, for use as a floating fish factory. He took back the name Belgica. and the vessel took part in annual fishing seasons off Lofoten. By the end of the 1930s, the vessel had been pressed back into coal transport and storage service.

Sunk in a bombing attack
On May 19, 1940, just five weeks after the German invasion of Norway, the Belgica sank in Brurvika off Harstad during a bombing attack. For years it rested at a depth of 22 meters until the wreckage was discovered in 1990s. Its history later emerged in an article written for the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. It was penned by Norwegian maritime historian Kjell-Gudmund Kjær, from Karlsøy in Troms, and sparked interest in Belgium.

A group of Belgian historians and academics ended up forming a foundation aimed at raising the wreckage, transporting the vessel to Belgium and displaying it as a museum piece.

Royal patronage
Ownership of the wreckage has since been transferred from Kristian Holst of Harstad to the foundation. Interest stirred by the wreckage has inspired creation of a Belgica-beer and a Belgica-digestive, while construction of a replica of the vessel is  underway with a launch planned in 2012. Queen Paola reportedly agreed to become a patron of the project.

Belgian divers have inspected the shipwreck and testing has been carried out to determine whether the vessel would survive a salvage attempt. Meanwhile, it remains in its watery resting place, the target of a dive just this past winter that included descendants of one of the Belgians who sailed on the Belgica as part of de Gerlache’s expedition in 1897. The Sør-Troms Museum is also trying to mount an exhibition of items saved from the vessel over the years.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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