Anxious wait for Russian research ship stranded in Antarctic
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.
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.