Helicopter Rescue Planned for Those Aboard Icebound Ship Off Antarctica
Passengers and some crew members aboard a research ship that has been stuck in thick Antarctic ice for nearly a week will be evacuated by helicopter, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday.
The ministry said in a statement that because icebreakers had been unable to clear a path to the chartered Russian ship, the Akademik Shokalskiy, a helicopter aboard one of the icebreakers would be used to ferry 52 scientists, graduate students, journalists and tourists and four crew members to safety when weather permits. The rest of the 22-member crew will remain on board to maintain the ship.
High winds and snow earlier on Monday forced an Australian icebreaker to abandon its attempt to reach the icebound ship. A Chinese icebreaker failed in a similar attempt on Saturday; it carries the helicopter that will be used in the evacuation. The Russian ministry said the evacuated passengers and crew members would be taken aboard the Chinese ship, the Xue Long.
The 233-foot Shokalskiy became stuck in the ice last Tuesday when strong winds pushed loose pack ice up against it near Cape de la Motte, about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania. It is carrying the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, scientists and tourists who are studying changes to the environment of East Antarctica in the century since the region was first explored.
The Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, which had been diverted from a supply mission to the Australian Antarctic base, Casey Station, reached the area early Monday, entered the pack ice and got within 12 miles of the Shokalskiy, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue operation.
But the authority said in a statement that poor visibility due to the snow and winds of up to 35 miles an hour made it unsafe for the icebreaker to continue. It is now in open water about 20 miles away, the authority said.
The Xue Long was about two months into a five-month Chinese Antarctic expedition when it was asked to help with the rescue.
The Russian ministry’s statement did not say where those evacuated from the Shokalskiy would be taken, but in addition to Casey Station, which is more than 500 miles to the west, there is a French station at Dumont d’Urville, about 100 miles to the east.
In an earlier phone interview from the ship, Chris Turney, a leader of the research expedition and a professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said that all aboard were well and that morale was high. The ship has enough food and other necessities to last several weeks.
The expedition, including 20 tourists, set sail from Bluff, New Zealand, on Dec. 8 on what was to be a monthlong voyage. The expedition is retracing some of the travels and replicating some of the studies of the Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who first explored East Antarctica from 1911 to 1914.
The ship anchored at the edge of pack ice on Dec. 18, and Dr. Turney and others spent a day journeying about 45 miles across the ice to Mawson’s hut. The ship then headed east through open water. But as it began heading north, Dr. Turney said, it “ran afoul of very strong winds” that pushed the loose ice in its way.
“It pegged us in,” he said, and the frozen expanse quickly grew as more ice piled up. “At first we were just two nautical miles from getting to open water, and now it’s 20.”
Even though it is summer in the Antarctic, waiting for the ice to break up on its own is not an option, Dr. Turney said, because of the risk that the ship could drift along with the ice and collide with one of several icebergs in the area.
Since the ship became stuck, Dr. Turney and others have been a regular presence on Twitter and other social media sites. Some have made short videos describing their experiences.
Dr. Turney said that some of the people aboard had gone onto the ice to study birds and to make other scientific observations, and that others had occupied themselves on board with ad hoc classes in subjects like knot tying.
And a steady diet of films has been available to help pass the time, he said.
“At first, people were starting to watch disaster movies,” Dr. Turney added. “But I had to stop that.” Now it is mostly comedies, although episodes of the hit series “Breaking Bad” have been popular, too.