Anx­ious wait for Rus­sian re­search ship stranded in Antarc­tic

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD - By AGEN­CIES and ZHANG JIANSONG from Xin­hua on­board the AFP —BBC

Pas­sen­gers on a Rus­sian re­search ship trapped in thick Antarc­tic ice faced an un­cer­tain wait on Sun­day for one last ice­break­ing at­tempt, with no guar­an­tees of suc­cess.

The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been ma­rooned amid heavy ice since Tues­day about 185 km east of the French Antarc­tic base Dumont d’Urville, with two ice­break­ing ships so far fail­ing in their at­tempts to reach it.

China’s ice­breaker Snow Dragon came close on Satur­day, get­ting to within 12 km of the pas­sen­ger ves­sel car­ry­ing 74 sci­en­tists, tourists and crew mem­bers be­fore im­pen­e­tra­ble ice forced it to halt its progress.

Wang Jianzhong, the cap­tain of the Snow Dragon, sent a he­li­copter out to check the stranded ship on Sun­day.

The he­li­copter was above the Rus­sian ves­sel for about 10 min­utes and ob­served that it was sur­rounded by ice and lean­ing to one side. Some peo­ple from the ship had dis­em­barked and set up a tent on the ice nearby.

The Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment’s re­sup­ply ship Aurora Aus­tralis was en route for the Rus­sian ship on Sun­day.

“It will then as­sess if it can make it through the ice to the Akademik Shokalskiy,” the Aus­tralian Mar­itime Safety Au­thor­ity told AFP.

“If the Aurora Aus­tralis is not ca­pa­ble of get­ting through the ice, then we will look at uti­liz­ing the he­li­copter on board the Chi­nese-flagged ves­sel (the Snow Dragon), which AMSA’s Res­cue Co­or­di­na­tion Cen­tre has tasked to re­main in the vicin­ity.”

The Snow Dragon’s he­li­copter con­ducted a re­con­nais­sance flight to de­ter­mine the best ap­proach route for the Aus­tralian ice­breaker and re­turned with promis­ing news.

“RCC Aus­tralia has been ad­vised that ice con­di­tions are im­prov­ing,” an AMSA spokes­woman said.

Those on board the ship also re­ported an eas­ing of the ice, with BBC jour­nal­ist An­drew Luck- Baker de­scrib­ing “big cracks ap­pear­ing way to­wards the hori­zon”.

“Pools of wa­ter are be­gin­ning to open up and we’re just won­der­ing whether this is our lucky break,” Luck-Baker told the Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion.

The Aurora Aus­tralis has the high­est ice­break­ing rate of the three ves­sels ini­tially sent to the res­cue, which also in­cluded France’s L’As­tro­labe, but there is no guar­an­tee it will be able to reach the Rus­sian ship.

The Aus­tralian ice­breaker can cut ice up to 1.6 me­ters thick, but the Akademik is es­ti­mated to be sur­rounded by ice of be­tween 3 and 4 me­ters.

Aurora Aus­tralis cap­tain Mur­ray Doyle said on Satur­day that his ves­sel was not built to tackle ice thicker than 3 me­ters, liken­ing it to driv­ing a car into a brick wall.

Ex­pe­di­tion co-leader Greg Mor­timer said con­tin­gency plans had been made if the Aus­tralian ves­sel couldn’t reach them “in the next few days” to evac­u­ate the Akademik, us­ing the Snow Dragon’s he­li­copter to ferry pas­sen­gers off the ice to other ships to re­turn home “via the Ross Sea or (Aus­tralia’s) Casey (Antarc­tic) base”.

The call to aban­don ice­break­ing ef­forts in fa­vor of an air res­cue would be made by the ships’ cap­tains, led by Doyle, he added.

“We’ll know, I guess, within 12 hours of the ar­rival of the Aurora Aus­tralis how that’s go­ing to un­fold, be­cause if they ar­rive and the con­di­tions are look­ing like the winds are go­ing to be in our fa­vor, we’ve got a lot more on our side,” Mor­timer told The Guardian.

Pre­vail­ing south­east winds have com­pressed the ice, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to break, and Doyle will be hop­ing for west­erly wind, which will ease pres­sure on the ice and boost cut­ting ef­forts.

He said the pas­sen­gers would get off the ship, but “what form that takes, I don’t know”.

De­spite the un­cer­tainty of their plight, the ship’s pas­sen­gers were re­ported to be safe, well and in good spir­its, pass­ing their time by play­ing board games, watch­ing fi lms and tak­ing walks on the ice to pho­to­graph pass­ing pen­guins.

ZHANG JIANSONG / XIN­HUA

The Rus­sian re­search ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck amid ice flows in the Antarc­tic since Tues­day. Aus­tralian ship Aurora Aus­tralis is try­ing to reach the ves­sel.

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