Poor visibility halts fresh bid to free ship trapped in Antarctica

AFP, SYDNEY

Tue, Dec 31, 2013 - Page 6

Gusty snow showers which hampered visibility yesterday forced back an Australian icebreaker struggling to reach a scientific expedition ship stranded off Antarctica and also prevented a helicopter rescue, authorities said.

The Aurora Australis made it to within 10 nautical miles (18.5km) of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which is stuck in an ice field, before retreating in the face of freezing winds and snow showers.

“The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots [55.5kph] and snow showers,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said. “These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today’s attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy.”

The authority said further rescue attempts could be made once the weather improves, and the Australian vessel is now in open waters about 18 nautical miles east of the Russian ship.

Australia’s Rescue Coordination Centre is in regular contact with the ship, which is carrying 74 people — including scientists, tourists and crew — and has been stationary 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D’Urville since Tuesday last week.

Its passengers, who had been following in the Antarctic footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911 to 1914 expedition, remain safe and well on their well-provisioned vessel, the safety authority said. Three icebreakers, including the Aurora Australis, were called to help free the trapped vessel, but the first attempt by a Chinese-flagged ship was unable to break through the ice, while a third vessel was released from the rescue, leaving hopes pinned on the Australian icebreaker.

Authorities had hoped that a helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged vessel that remains in the area would be able to evacuate the passengers if the Aurora Australis was unsuccessful, but the safety authority said yesterday it was also “unsafe to attempt to launch the helicopter from the Chinese vessel,” given the weather.