Chinese icebreaker Xue Long has had to turn back from it’s attempt to rescue a stranded Russian scientific ship.
The Russian ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, has been stuck in ice since Tuesday. It had been making its way around Commonwealth Bay when it became trapped in ice flows that had been pushed in by strong winds. On Wednesday morning the Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in the U.K. picked up her distress signal and passed it on to the Australia Maritime Safety Authority.
Three icebreakers are presently heading to the Shokalskiy’s rescue. The first to arrive in proximity and attempt breaking through the ice was the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon. It was expected that the Snow Dragon would be able to clear a path for the Shokalskiy by Friday night. The Snow Dragon however, only managed to approach within six-and-a-half miles before the ice forced her to stop too. Her captain, concerned for his ships safety, has since retraced his path to clear water.
After turning back from the stranded ship, the icebreaker Snow Dragon has since regrouped with the smaller French icebreaker, L’Astrolabe, which was dispatched from the nearby Antarctic base, Dumont D’Urville. The third icebreaker, a slightly larger Australian vessel, the Aurora Australis, is expected to arrive on scene on Sunday. Depending on weather conditions and the flow of ice, the authorities will decide on another plan of attack. In a worst case scenario the people from the Shokalskiy could be evacuated by helicopter to the Snow Dragon.
The Shokalskiy arrived in the Southern Ocean Dec. 8 with a mix of crew, scientists, and paying tourists assisting with the experiments. The voyage is retracing the route of Sir Douglas Mawson who embarked on the 1911 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. Their goal is to study the exact same areas that Mawson had also studied. That way they could compare the two to establish what kind of changes, or if any changes at all had taken place. They have also been studying the wildlife and visited Mawson’s huts that are still standing from the 1911 expedition.
There’s a bit of irony here with the stranding of the Shokalskiy in Commonwealth Bay, as Mawson himself was stranded at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, a hundred years prior. He had embarked with two others, Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, to explore the Antarctic Plateau. While still on the outward leg Ninnis fell down a crevasse along with some of the dogs and a good portion of their supplies. Mawson and Mertz were 300 miles from base with few supplies left. As they headed back to Cape Denison Mertz succumbed to vitamin A poisoning and died. His death is most likely attributed to toxic levels of vitamin A contained in the dog livers they had been eating. Mawson continued on, and when he reached Cape Denison he arrived just in time to see his ship, The Aurora, sailing into the distance. He was stranded there for another year, with no icebreaker in sight.
Since Tuesday the passengers have kept in good spirits. After celebrating Christmas they’ve continued with their scientific experiments to keep busy. They know that even though the icebreaker Snow Dragon had to turn back, their stranded ship had been located and a rescue plan was in the works. Unlike Mawson, they will not have to wait another year.
By Scott Wilson