China icebreaker heads to science ship trapped off Antarctica

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SYDNEY: A Chinese icebreaker was Friday closing in on the frozen seas where a scientific mission ship is trapped off Antarctica, as those onboard welcomed the easing of blizzard conditions.

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The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the rescue of the Russian passenger ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, said the boat had experienced very strong winds and limited visibility.

The ship, with 74 people on board, has been trapped in ice about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D’Urville since Tuesday.

Three boats with icebreaking capability have diverted to try to help free it, with the Chinese vessel Snow Dragon expected now about 15 nautical miles from the vessel but progressing at slow speed, AMSA said.

It is not known whether it will be able to immediately cut through to the stranded ship or will wait for assistance from the other two boats, the French vessel L’Astrolabe—which is 20 nautical miles away—and the Australian Antarctic Division’s Aurora Australis.

“Weather conditions improved on Friday, with strong winds and snow abating,” AMSA said in a statement.

“Conditions are expected to remain favourable for the next two days.”

Chris Fogwill, one of the scientists on the Akademik Shokalskiy, said the boat had been in an area which was normally open water but had been caught out by a change in the weather which forced them into heavy ice.

They were then hit by a blizzard on Thursday.

“We’ve had a blizzard rolling most of yesterday,” Fogwill told the ABC on Friday. “It’s beginning to ease which is good and we think, you know, that the wind is getting lighter and lighter.

“So actually we are in fairly good shape for people coming in… later today.”

The boat is well stocked with food and is in no danger and Fogwill said the Russian crew were running the engines for at least part of each day to ensure the boat’s workings remained free of ice.

“We’re very stationary at the moment,” he said.

“We’ve been stuck in ice since Christmas Eve, so we had a stationary Christmas in the ice. But it has. . .helped to carry on doing science, which has been fantastic.”

The ship, which is in the Australian Search and Rescue region, is carrying scientists and tourists who are following the Antarctic path of explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago.

They have been carrying out the same scientific experiments his team conducted during the 1911-1914 Australian Antarctic Expedition—the first large-scale Australian-led scientific expedition to the frozen continent.

Several members of the team have already battled sea ice to reach the historic Mawson’s Huts—built and occupied by the 1911-1914 expedition—which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg. AFP

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