ANTARCTICA

Second icebreaker attempts to free ship stuck off Antarctica

Rescue bid for Russian research ship trapped since Christmas Eve scuppered by thick ice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:21am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 December, 2013, 5:21am

Passengers on board a ship stuck in ice off Antarctica were yesterday placing their hopes in an Australian icebreaker hurrying to their remote location, after the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long failed to free them.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is co-ordinating the rescue of the Russian passenger ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, said the Xue Long came within 6.5 nautical miles of the ship but had to stop.

"The Chinese vessel unfortunately encountered some heavy ice that it's not capable of breaking through," AMSA spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher said. "The rescue … unfortunately has stalled."

The Russian ship, with 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, has been trapped in ice about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville since Tuesday.

The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, came tantalisingly close to the stranded ship but it was forced to turn back once it realised it could not break through.

Passengers are now waiting for the arrival, expected late today, of Australia's Antarctic resupply ship Aurora Australis, which has the highest icebreaking rating of the three vessels originally asked to respond.

It is not yet clear whether the Aurora Australis will be able to go any further than the Xue Long. A third ship, the French vessel L'Astrolabe, was released from the rescue mission yesterday.

"We all know that there's a possibility of this becoming quite a protracted sit and wait," Andrew Peacock, a passenger on board the Akademik Shokalskiy, said via satellite phone.

"I think people are just looking at that next step when that second icebreaker arrives."

The Akademik Shokalskiy is carrying scientists and tourists who are following the Antarctic path of explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago and Peacock, the expedition's doctor, said the work was continuing.

The group, which includes Australians, New Zealanders and Britons, became stuck when unexpected weather forced their ship into heavy ice.

Peacock said the ship was well supplied and all passengers were comfortable, but joked: "The beer is running low."