An Australian icebreaker carrying 52 passengers who were retrieved from an icebound ship in the Antarctic resumed its journey home today after it was halted for a second potential rescue operation.
The icebreaker Aurora Australis had been slowly cracking through thick ice toward open water after a Chinese ship’s helicopter on Thursday plucked the passengers from their stranded Russian research ship and carried them to an ice floe near the Aurora.
But on Friday afternoon, the crew of a Chinese icebreaker that had provided the helicopter said they were worried about their own ship’s ability to move through the ice.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue, told the Aurora on Friday afternoon to stay in the area in case help was needed.
But AMSA said the Aurora had been allowed today to continue its journey despite the Chinese ship Snow Dragon (Xue Long in Chinese) remaining stuck in ice.
“The master of Xue Long has confirmed to AMSA that the ship is safe, it is not in distress and does not require assistance at this time,” AMSA said in a statement.
The Aurora had been put on standby as a precaution while the Snow Dragon attempted to manoeuver through the pack ice during optimal tidal conditions early today, AMSA said.
That attempt failed. The Chinese ship remains stuck several miles from the Russian icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy, from which the passengers were rescued. The Russian ship has been immobile since Christmas Eve.
The maritime authority said the decision to place the Aurora on standby was a precaution and noted there was no danger to anyone on board the Snow Dragon. But it was yet another wrinkle in the highly complex rescue operation of those on board the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which got stuck in the ice on Christmas Eve.
A spot of clear weather Thursday finally allowed the multinational rescue operation after blinding snow, strong winds and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.
The twin-rotor helicopter, which is housed on the Snow Dragon, took seven hours to carry the scientists and tourists in groups of 12 from the Russian ship to the Aurora. Earlier, the passengers had linked arms and stomped out a landing site in the snow next to the Russian ship for the helicopter.
Helicopter pilot Jia Shuliang told China’s official Xinhua News Agency that he had no way of knowing whether the ice could withstand the helicopter’s weight.
The rescue came in the never-ending daylight of summer after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel.
The 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in any danger and has enough supplies on board to last for weeks. They will wait until the ice surrounding the ship breaks up, which could take several weeks, ASMA Emergency Response Division manager John Young said.
“Only now am I sort of feeling a bit emotional about leaving the Shokalskiy,” said Alok Jha, a journalist from the Guardian who is traveling with the Akademik Shokalskiy. “The poor old thing is stuck still.”
The cost of the rescue would be carried by the owners of the ships and their insurers, in accordance with international conventions on sea rescues, Young said.
Any official inquiry into how the ship got stuck would have to be conducted by Russia, he said.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on Nov. 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania. The scientific team on board had been re-creating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911-13 voyage to Antarctica.