Antarctic ship passengers ‘to be evacuated by Chinese helicopter’

Bad weather forces off second attempt, after Chinese ship, by sea to help stranded science expedition

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 3:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 2:25pm

Russia said on Monday that most of the passengers and some of the crew stranded on a scientific expedition ship off Antarctica will be evacuated by a Chinese helicopter should the weather allow.

“A decision has been reached to evacuate 52 passngers and four crew members by helicopter from China’s Xue Long ship, should the weather allow,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. The ship is carrying 74 people, including scientists, tourists and crew.

Bad weather earlier on Monday forced back an Australian icebreaker struggling to reach a scientific expedition ship stranded off Antarctica, while snow and winds have prevented a helicopter rescue, authorities said.

Watch: Australian icebreaker struggles to reach icebound Russian vessel

The Aurora Australis made it to within 10 nautical miles of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which is stuck in an ice field, before retreating in the face of freezing winds and snow showers.

“Adverse weather conditions have resulted in the Australian Antarctic Division vessel Aurora Australis moving back into open water this afternoon,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) said.

“The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers.

“These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue [Monday’s] attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.”

The authority said further rescue attempts could be made by the Australian vessel once the weather improves and it was now in open waters about 18 nautical miles east of the trapped Russian ship.

Australia’s rescue co-ordination centre is in regular contact with the stranded ship, which is carrying 74 people – including scientists, tourists and crew – and has been stationary since December 24.

Watch: Scenes aboard Akademik Shokalskiy after the blizzard

Source: Intrepid Science YouTube Channel

Its passengers, who had been following in the Antarctic footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition, remain safe on their well-provisioned vessel, Amsa said.

Three icebreakers, including a Chinese vessel, were called to help free the Russian ship, which endured a fierce blizzard that appears to have increased the build-up of the surrounding ice.

But an attempt by the Chinese-flagged vessel was unable to break through the ice and had to retreat. The third vessel was released from rescue duties, concentrating hopes on the Australian icebreaker.

Authorities had hoped that a helicopter on board the Chinese vessel that remains in the area would be able to evacuate the passengers if the Aurora Australis was unsuccessful.

But Amsa said on Monday that it was also “unsafe to attempt to launch the helicopter from the Chinese vessel” given the weather.

Australian authorities took over the search and rescue operation on Christmas Day after Britain’s Falmouth Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre received a distress message via satellite from the Akademik Shokalskiy.

Chris Turney, one of the leaders of the scientific expedition, said there had been high winds early on Monday, meaning communications had been limited.

“Set up tent on top deck. All well. Aurora making good progress. Waiting game,” he tweeted.

Turney had earlier tweeted that cracks were developing in the ice around the bow of the ship, something he hoped would help free it.

The team onboard has been carrying out the same scientific experiments Mawson’s group conducted during the 1911-1914 expedition in the hope they could help in climate change research.

Several members of the team have already battled sea ice to reach the historic Mawson’s Huts, built and occupied by the expedition, which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg.