A total of 52 passengers were rescued from the Russian research vessel – the MV Akademik Shokalskiy – that had been marooned among the thick sea ice of the Antarctic, on Dec. 24. All passengers were successfully relocated to the Australian icebreaker ship, called the Aurora Australis, which was starting to slowly crack through the surrounding sea ice, in a bid to reach open waters.
However, in light of the Snow Dragon voicing concerns to rescue coordinators, regarding the ability to escape the thick sea ice, the Aurora Australis has been placed on standby.
Chinese Helicopter Rescues Passengers Aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy
The climactic rescue mission was made by a Chinese helicopter, launched during a brief window where weather conditions were more conducive to conducting a safe flight. The twin-rotor helicopter – featuring a vibrant red and white aesthetic – ferried passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy to the Aurora Australis over a seven-hour period, during Thursday. On each run of the rescue operation, passengers were transported in groups of a dozen, or so, at a time.
The intermittent sorties were executed by a helicopter that was based at the Chinese icebreaker, called the Snow Dragon (a.k.a. the Xue Long) – now feared to be stuck, itself.
Greg Mortimer was among one of the three expedition leaders that chartered the Akademik Shokalskiy. Mortimer explained he was relieved to have witnessed the rescue of his crew from the ice-bound ship, but was also saddened to have made his departure:
“I was immensely relieved for the people under my care… It was very sad. I’ve known that ship for a very long time.”
The Akademik Shokalskiy was originally trapped on Christmas Eve when the powerful winds of an intense blizzard shifted sea ice around the distinctive, blue-hulled vessel, freezing it in position near Cape de la Motte. The team initially tried waiting it out, in the hopes that conditions would improve; alas, the punishing weather showed little sign of abating, and the crew – comprising of scientists, tourists and journalists – were forced to send a distress signal. The signal was subsequently picked up by Britain’s Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, via satellite, and then relayed to AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre Australia (RCC Australia), prompting a series of international rescue efforts.
Earlier on, members of the crew began creating a makeshift helicopter landing site. Linking arms, the soon-to-be rescued passengers cleared out the landing site, adjacent the Russian ship.
Before the operation commenced, rescue teams expressed concerns that the weather could worsen, preventing launch of the rescue helicopter. Jia Shuliang, who was captain of the Xue Long, informed Chinese new agency Xinhua that the rescue would require multiple flights, lasting between three and four hours. The 55-year-old pilot explained that the flight was a major challenge and involved use of a helicopter that was poorly equipped for the task. Speaking to Xinhua, Shuliang briefly discussed the unpredictable nature of the weather:
“We must be patient and wait until the adverse weather improves, as poor visibility could lead to tragedy under the current conditions of limited navigation.”
Nonetheless, the rescue attempts went off without a hitch, and all 52 passengers were transported to the awaiting Aurora Australis.
It was originally anticipated that the Aurora Australis would make its way through the ice, and into the open sea, by Friday; it would then have taken approximately two weeks to transport the rescued passengers of Akademik Shokalskiy to the Australian island state of Tasmania. However, in light of the Snow Dragon encountering problems with entrapping sea ice, the Aurora Australis remains on standby; precisely when the vessel will reach its destination, now, remains uncertain.
Meanwhile, 22 crew members aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy will remain with the stranded ship. With an abundance of supplies, it is believed the crew can stay with the ship for another few weeks, until the ice surrounding the besieged ship breaks apart. Emergency Response Division Manager John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) was unable to approximate when the Russian research vessel would likely become freed from its icy prison.
Speaking to AFP, Young claims AMSA would hold briefings with those involved in the rescue, whereas the Russian authorities would be responsible for conducting enquiries into the handling of the Akademik Shokalskiy.
“Lessons learned from those processes may be fed into the International Maritime Organization, and the guidelines and rules it creates for polar operations which is quite an active subject… at the moment.”
Snow Dragon Issues Distress
In the aftermath of the latest rescue efforts, it appears the Snow Dragon has also been beset with difficulties. AMSA released a media release on Jan. 3, 2014, at 4:30 p.m. AEDT. The Snow Dragon informed AMSA that it had “… concerns about their ability to move through heavy ice in the area.”
As a precautionary measure, AMSA’s RCC Australia has requested the Aurora Australis remain on standby in the open waters of the area. The Snow Dragon has indicated that it will attempt to traverse through the ice when tidal conditions are more agreeable, during the morning of Jan. 4.
AMSA states that the personnel aboard the Snow Dragon are in no danger, at this time.
By James Fenner