52 passengers rescued from Antarctic’s icy grip

ALL 52 passengers on board a ship trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve have been rescued, after weather conditions finally cleared.
Photograph taken by expedition doctor Andrew PeacockPhotograph taken by expedition doctor Andrew Peacock
Photograph taken by expedition doctor Andrew Peacock

A Chinese helicopter ferried the scientists and tourists in groups of 12 from Russian research ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker, which will take them to the Australian island state of Tasmania, a journey expected to last two weeks.

The group had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s century-old voyage to Antarctica when they became trapped.

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The eagerly anticipated rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel. Blinding snow, strong winds, fog and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.

Expedition leader Chris Turney took to social media to express his delight when the helicopter arrived to rescue the group.

“The Chinese helicopter has arrived @ the Shokalskiy. It’s 100 per cent we’re off! A huge thanks to all,” he posted on Twitter.

Speaking via satellite phone, he said: “I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home.”

Three icebreakers had been dispatched to try to crack their way through the ice surrounding the ship, but all failed. The Aurora came within 12 miles of the ship on Monday, before fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.

A Chinese ship got within sight of the Akademik Shokalskiy last Saturday but had to turn back after failing to break through the ice, which was more than three metres thick in places.

Yesterday, it appeared the weather had thwarted another rescue attempt.

The helicopter had originally been going to airlift the passengers on to the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, on which the chopper is based, with a barge then ferrying the passengers to the Aurora.

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However, sea ice prevented the barge from reaching the Snow Dragon icebreaker, and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which was co-ordinating the rescue, said the operation would have to be delayed.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on 28 November, became stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.

All 22 crew stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in danger of sinking and has weeks’ worth of supplies on board. They will wait until the ice surrounding the ship breaks up before moving on.

The scientific team on board had been recreating Mawson’s 1911-13 voyage to Antarctica. Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists had continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.

Mr Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship. Despite his disappointment over the expedition having to be cut short, he said his spirits remained high.

“I’m a bit sad it’s ended this way,” he said. “But we got lots and lots of great science done.”