January 1— “We were wondering whether we were in for it to wait at least another week,” says Andrew Luck-Baker, a member of the BBC Science Unit and passenger on board the research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy. The ship has been trapped in Antarctica for over a week, but he says it appears that they will be rescued today.
From a video captured on his personal recording device, the scene below the weather decks of the Russian vessel is filled with “ants,” expedition scientists and operational staff, hauling luggage and equipment from the beleaguered ship to the ice below on sleds typified in Alaskan sled-dog competitions.
“We’re all going to be lifted off in the next—well, I won’t say how many hours—but we’re… gonna be going this evening.”
The Shokalskiy has been lodged in the Antarctica ice since Christmas and rescue plans have been various. Originally chartered by the Australian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014, the mission was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the previous expedition headed by Douglas Mawson. With a goal to find evidence of global warming, the expedition started December 8th and was trapped fast in the ice in the early morning hours of the 25th, just miles from the Antarctica coastline.
Early attempts to rescue the vessel were unsuccessful. Two icebreakers, the Chinese Xue Long and the Australian Aurora Australis, and the French research vessel L’Astrolabe all sailed to the aid of the Shokalskiy. L’Astrolabe was forced to turn around after encountering heavy ice as was the Xue Long, but the Chinese icebreaker remained nearby in open waters and within range of their rescue helicopter.
The Aurora Australis, nearly mired in the ice herself, quit her first attempt and immediately planned a second after weather improved in the area. Icebreakers, though designed to handle thick ice sheets, were unable to safely navigate the waters any closer than seven nautical miles to the Russian ship. They were going to wait out the storms that had recently plagued the area until the Antarctica rescue of the Akademic Shokalskiy could begin anew.
The ship sailed with 74 persons, composed of the 22 crew members and a mix of scientists, journalists and passengers. Concerned that they would have to weather the arctic climes for another week, journalists and passengers tweeted, e-mailed, and uploaded digital video of their circumstances. Attitudes were good and confidence was high that rescue efforts would be successful, and soon. The crew reported the ability to sustain all 74 members of the ship’s company until at least January 10th, but nobody was excited about another week of the exceptionally cold Antarctica freeze.
Earlier in the day, just hours before Luck-Baker’s video declaration, the Xue Long landed a test flight with their search and rescue chopper. Concerned about getting the crew safely lifted from the ice, the flight crew flew the area surrounding the iced-in vessel in search of a suitable landing area. After identifying the best potential spot—and after some members of the research team and crew, arm in arm, stamped the site’s snow flat enough for a makeshift “helipad”—the pilot was able to set down and visit with the ship’s captain. It was deemed safe enough and the helicopter left back to home base to report their findings and to make preparations for receiving passengers and crew members twelve at a time.
“We’re expecting the ‘copter back in—thirty minutes, an hour thereabouts,” reports Mr. Baker.
China’s Xue Long is poised to be the end of this unfortunate turn of events for the Australian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 as they air-lift the passengers from the ice-pack to the safety of open waters, leaving the majority of the Shokalskiy crew behind to tend the vessel until it can be freed.
From there, the rescued members of the Akademik Shokalskiy expedition will be ferried by the crew of the nearby Aurora Astralis to the Aussie icebreaker and then to the island state of Tasmania, Australia. They are expected to arrive by mid-January.
By Matt Darjany