India has acquired its first ocean vessel that could push its two-decade-old dream of recovering metals from the seabed closer to reality, but its first mission was to find a man overboard in the Red Sea. During its maiden voyage from its birthplace Italy to India, the multipurpose research vessel Sagar Nidhi made a 12-hour detour, responding to an emergency call from another ship, according to marine engineers who were tracking its journey.
The Rs 232-crore vessel, operated by the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Chennai, is expected to be formally dedicated to the nation by science and technology minister Kapil Sibal on Monday.
"The ship will allow India to demonstrate for the first time pilot mining activity on the central Indian Ocean seabed," a scientist at the NIOT said.
India was the first country to invest in real estate on the ocean floor, acquiring rights to 1,50,000km2 of territory in the central Indian Ocean from the UN in 1987 for preliminary exploration activities.
Surveys have confirmed the presence of manganese, cobalt and nickel on the seabed at depths of 6,000 metres, but undersea mining operations have been economically unviable all these years.
India's purchase of Sagar Nidhi, built by the Italian company Fincantieri, represents an ongoing government effort to develop or acquire multiple technologies that would be needed for undersea mining. It could be used to operate a seabed crawler that would scoop up polymetallic nodules from the sea bottom.
"Metal prices have shot up in recent years and we're probably closer to a possible era of seabed mining now than before," said a scientist at the NIOT. But a decision on whether to initiate seabed mining - even on a pilot scale - has not yet been taken, the scientist said.
On New Year's Day this year while on its way to Chennai, as it sailed out of the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden, Sagar Nidhi received a radio message from a cargo vessel, Denmark-registered Maersk Marathon, asking it to assist in looking for a man who had fallen overboard, according to vessel managers at the NIOT.
After a detour and several hours of searching, a sailor on Sagar Nidhi spotted a body floating about a nautical mile away. The ship sailed towards the spot and confirmed what appeared to be a body in the proximity of a life buoy, and conveyed to the Marathon their exact coordinates.
A rescue vessel from the Marathon then arrived and picked up the life buoy and the body, according to crew on Sagar Nidhi. "Our crew didn't get any details of the man overboard or the incident. That wasn't any of our business," said Duggirala Rajasekhar, head of the vessel management division at the NIOT.
A team from the NIOT led by Rajasekhar had supervised the construction of Sagar Nidhi, which sailed into Chennai in early January after an otherwise uneventful journey.
The research vessel is the first in India equipped with a winch and cable strong enough to hoist 60 tonnes from a depth of 6,000 metres under the sea. It is also the first with a feature that allows it to maintain its position within five metres of a point even in choppy sea waters with 2.5-metre high waves.
"Both features are important in seabed mining activity," a senior NIOT scientist said. But the multipurpose vessel is also expected to play a role in seawater desalination, underwater observations and surveys and operation of remotely operated underwater vehicles.
© 2008 The Telegraph