Chinese ship sails to rescue of Russian vessel trapped in Antarctic ice

Icebreaker sails to the aid of 74 people trapped on Russian research ship since Christmas Eve

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 11:22pm


A ship trapped in thick Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve was nearing rescue yesterday, after a Chinese icebreaker - called the Snow Dragon - drew close to the icebound vessel.

The Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which is on a research expedition, became stuck after a blizzard's whipping winds pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place. The ship was not in danger of sinking, and there were ample supplies for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, but the vessel could not move.

Maritime authorities received the ship's distress signal on Wednesday and sent three icebreakers to assist. By yesterday afternoon, China's Snow Dragon had made it as far as the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship, 20 kilometres away, but still faced the tough task of getting through the dense pack ice to the paralysed vessel.

The Snow Dragon was hoping to reach the ship by yesterday evening, but changing weather conditions and the thickness of the ice could slow its progress, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is co-ordinating the rescue.

Two other ships with icebreaking capabilities had also diverted to help the Russian vessel, but the Snow Dragon was expected to get there first.

Expedition leader Chris Turney said it may take the Snow Dragon until later today to break through.

"We're all just on tenterhooks at the moment, waiting to find out" how long it will take, Turney said by satellite phone. "Morale is really good."

The scientific team on board the vessel - which left New Zealand on November 28 - had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's century-old voyage to Antarctica when it became trapped. They plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, Turney said.

Passengers and crew have had to contend with blizzard conditions, including winds up to 70km/h, but the weather had calmed considerably yesterday, Turney said.

"The blizzard we had yesterday was quite extraordinary — it's not nice when you can feel the ship shaking," he said.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.