The Australian government’s resupply ship Aurora Australis making one final bid to free Russian research ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy was expected to reach the icebound ship yesterday at 11pm.
The Akademik is carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew and has been marooned by heavy ice since Tuesday about 100 nautical miles (185km) east of the French Antarctic base Dumont d’Urville.
Two icebreaking ships have so far failed in attempts to reach it.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said its supply ship would make an assessment of whether it could break through the ice surrounding the Akademik.
“If the Aurora Australis is not capable of getting through the ice, then we will look at utilizing the helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged vessel [the Snow Dragon], which AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre [RCC] has tasked to remain in the vicinity,” an AMSA spokeswoman said.
The Snow Dragon’s helicopter did a reconnaissance flight over the site yesterday afternoon to determine the best approach route for the Australian icebreaker and returned with promising news.
“RCC Australia has been advised that ice conditions are improving,” the AMSA spokeswoman said.
The Australian icebreaker, which has the highest icebreaking rate of the three vessels initially sent to the Akademik’s rescue, can cut ice up to 1.6m thick, but the Akademik is estimated to be surrounded by thick ice of 3m or 4m.
Aurora Australis captain Murray Doyle said on Saturday that his vessel was not built to tackle ice thicker than 3m, likening it to driving a car into a brick wall.
Expedition co-leader Greg Mortimer said contingency plans if the Australian vessel couldn’t reach them “in the next few days” would be to evacuate the Akademik using the Snow Dragon’s helicopter to ferry passengers onto other ships to return home “via the Ross Sea or [Australia’s] Casey [Antarctic] base.”
The call to abandon icebreaking efforts in favor of an air rescue would be made by the ships’ captains, led by Doyle, he added.
“We’ll know I guess within 12 hours of the arrival of the Aurora Australis how that’s going to unfold, because if they arrive and the conditions are looking like the winds are going to be in our favor, we’ve got a lot more on our side,” Mortimer told the Guardian.
Prevailing south-easterly winds have compressed the ice, making it more difficult to break, and Doyle will be hoping for a westerly, which will ease pressure on the ice and boost cutting efforts.
He said the passengers would get off the ship, but “what form that takes I don’t know.”
Despite the uncertainty of their plight, the ship’s passengers were reported to be safe, well and in good spirits, with expedition co-leader Chris Turney and Guardian correspondent Alok Jha posting a jovial video online from the snowy deck.
“We’re still here, stuck at Cape de la Motte. Any passing ships do pay us a visit!” a fur-hatted Jha joked.
Passengers were passing their time by playing board games, watching films and taking walks on the ice to photograph passing penguins. Others recorded video messages to family anxious for news back home.
“Just saying hi to let you know we’re going to be a little bit late, the ship’s stuck in a lot of really really heavy ice and the Aurora Australis is coming in to get us,” Australian marine biologist Tracey Rogers said in a video update for her son and daughter.