Blizzards delay rescue mission from Russian ship stranded in the Antarctic

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 1:25am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 2:44am

An icebound Russian research vessel prepared to ring in the New Year in Antarctica yesterday as blizzards delayed a helicopter rescue planned after several icebreaking attempts failed.

The Akademik Shokalskiy has been stranded 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville for a week, hemmed in by impenetrable pack ice that three separate breakers have been unable to breach.

The Australian government's supply ship Aurora Australis on Monday came within 10 nautical miles of the marooned vessel, which has 74 research scientists, tourists and crew on board, but was forced to turn back by snow showers and freezing winds.

Russia's foreign ministry said a decision had been reached overnight to evacuate all 52 passengers by a helicopter on board the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which remains nearby after its own aborted bid to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is co-ordinating operations, said severe weather continued to block efforts yesterday.

"This rescue will be a complex operation involving a number of steps and subject to factors such as weather," AMSA said.

AMSA said a landing site had been marked on the ice beside the Russian ship, adding that only passengers and none of the ship's 22 crew would be evacuated.

Ship's doctor Andrew Peacock said the passengers were frustrated but "resigned to keep waiting" and trying to keep their spirits high, with a New Year party planned in the ship's bar.

"[We're] passing the time reading, preparing for a possible helicopter evacuation, continuing ocean studies dropping probes beneath the ice, [watching] movies in the auditorium and working on a new song for New Year's Eve celebrations, which will be a nice dinner and time at the bar," Peacock said.

"We know this is a serious event and we are inconveniencing others. We are not morose or upset, just frustrated and we have no option but to settle in and keep morale high."

The ship is stocked with two weeks' worth of fresh food and another fortnight of dehydrated rations. But Peacock said drinks were running low, with "just enough alcohol left to celebrate" the arrival of 2014.

Peacock said passengers had been upset by speculation on social media that they were not on a "serious science-based" expedition or had been negligent in some way.

"We were caught as we left to go north en route to home by a new breakout of ice dragged across to this area by strong southeasterly winds. This was a fairly rare event in this specific location," he said.


Watch: Australian icebreaker struggles to reach icebound Russian vessel