SYDNEY: Passengers on a Russian research ship trapped in thick Antarctic ice faced an uncertain wait Sunday for one last icebreaking attempt with no guarantees of success.
The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been marooned by heavy ice since Tuesday about 100 nautical miles east of the French Antarctic base Dumont d’Urville, with two icebreaking ships so far failing in attempts to reach it.
China’s Snow Dragon came tantalizingly close on Saturday, getting to within six-and-a-half nautical miles of the passenger vessel carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew before impenetrable ice forced it to turn back.
The Australian government’s resupply ship Aurora Australis is now en route to make one final bid to free the icebound boat and is expected to reach the Akademik at 11p.m. Australian time (1200 GMT).
“It will then assess if it can make it through the ice to the Akademik Shokalskiy,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.
“If the Aurora Australis is not capable of getting through the ice, then we will look at utilizing the helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged vessel [the Snow Dragon]which AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Center has tasked to remain in the vicinity.”
The Snow Dragon’s helicopter did a reconnaissance flight over the site on Sunday afternoon to determine the best approach route for the Australian icebreaker and returned with promising news.
“RCC [Rescue Coordination Center] Australia has been advised that ice conditions are improving,” an AMSA spokeswoman said.
The Aurora Australis has the highest icebreaking rate of the three vessels initially sent to the Akademik’s rescue, which also included France’s L’Astrolabe, but there is no guarantee it will be able to reach the Russian ship.
The Australian icebreaker can cut ice up to 1.6 meters thick but the Akademik is estimated to be surrounded by ice of between three and four meters. Aurora Australis captain Murray Doyle said his vessel was not built to tackle ice thicker than three meters, likening it to driving a car into a brick wall.
Expedition co-leader Greg Mortimer said contingency plans had been made if the Australian vessel couldn’t reach them “in the next few days” to evacuate the Akademik, using the Snow Dragon’s helicopter to ferry passengers off the ice to other ships to return home “via the Ross Sea or [Australia’s] Casey [Antarctic] base.”
The call to abandon icebreaking efforts in favor of an air rescue would be made by the ships’ captains, led by Doyle, he added.
“We’ll know I guess within 12 hours of the arrival of the Aurora Australis how that’s going to unfold, because if they arrive and the conditions are looking like the winds are going to be in our favor we’ve got a lot more on our side,” Mortimer told The Guardian.