Antarctic rescue: Helicopter use planned

By Brendan Manning, AP staff

The Akademik Shokalskiy is trapped in pack ice 3,000km southwest of Bluff.
The Akademik Shokalskiy is trapped in pack ice 3,000km southwest of Bluff.

Passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week are expected to be rescued by helicopter, after three icebreakers failed to reach the paralyzed vessel, officials say.

Seventy-four people, including six New Zealanders, have been marooned on the Akademik Shokalskiy, 3000km southwest of Bluff, since it became wedged in thick ice on Christmas day.

The stranded scientists, tourists and crew had been hoping the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis would be able to crack through the thick ice and allow them to continue on their way. The Aurora came within 20 kilometres of the ship on Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.

On Tuesday, the weather remained bleak, and the crew on the Aurora said their vessel would also be at risk of getting stuck if it made another rescue attempt, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue.

A helicopter on board a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, will be used to collect the passengers. The Snow Dragon, which is waiting with the Aurora at the edge of the ice pack, was also unable to crack through the ice, as was France's L'Astrolabe.

But the helicopter must wait for a break in the weather before it can attempt a rescue, and conditions aren't expected to improve before Wednesday, the maritime authority said. The passengers will be flown back to the Snow Dragon in groups of 12, and then transferred by barge to the Aurora.

All 52 passengers will be evacuated, but the crew on the Akademik Shokalskiy will stay behind with the ship and wait for the ice to break up naturally, expedition spokesman Alvin Stone said.

A simple shift in the wind could free the ship. Winds from the east have been pounding the ship and pushing the ice around the vessel. A westerly wind would help break up the ice, Stone said. The trouble is, no one knows when the wind will change.

The leader of the Australasian Antarctic expedition ship has described the experience as "sobering''.

The Russian research vessel set out from Bluff on December 8. Six New Zealanders are on board, including ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson, University of Auckland doctoral student Colin Tan, historians John and Barbara Tucker, and two chefs.

Expedition leader Professor Chris Turney described the past week as "sobering'' in a blog post.

"At the time we were initially caught by the sea ice, the Shokalskiy was just 2 to 4 nautical miles from open water.

"Now the sea ice distance has become even greater with the continued winds from the east, putting our nearest point of exit at some 16 nautical miles.''

However, morale remained good on board the Shokalskiy, everyone was working hard to support one another and the science programme was continuing as best it could, he wrote.

Aurora Australis' captain Murray Doyle told a Fairfax reporter on board the vessel that the ice had become too thick to penetrate.

"There was just nowhere for us to go.''

The Akademik Shokalskiy was retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's 1911 Antarctic expedition when it became trapped. The expedition is being led by scientists from the University of New South Wales.

- APNZ

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