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​Chinese ship fails to break out of ice trap in Antarctica after rescue mission

Published time: January 04, 2014 10:25
The Xue Long (Snow Dragon) Chinese icebreaker sits in the ice pack unable to get through to the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, in East Antarctica (Reuters/Andrew Peacock)

The Xue Long (Snow Dragon) Chinese icebreaker sits in the ice pack unable to get through to the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, in East Antarctica (Reuters/Andrew Peacock)

An attempt to break free of heavy Antarctic ice floes by Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which helped to rescue passengers from Russia’s Akademik Shokalsky, has failed. But those it helped to rescue are now on their way home on an Australian vessel.

“Xue Long’s attempt to maneuver through the ice early this morning was unsuccessful,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in a statement. "The ship has confirmed to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority it is beset by ice."

On Thursday, helicopter sent by the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, successfully evacuated all the 52 passengers aboard the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalsky to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis.

Over the next few days there was speculation whether the Chinese ship had gotten stuck as the vessel had hardly moved after its failed attempt to cut through the ice to reach the Shokalsky for the first time.

The Xue Long's movement has been blocked by a drifting kilometer-long iceberg, which constantly changed position and at times came as closely as 1.2 nautical miles (about 2.2 kilometers) to the ship, according to Xinhua reporters aboard the Chinese icebreaker.

“The conditions are extremely complex in this sea area, which is experiencing large astronomical tides, and the positions of the iceberg and ice floes are changing rapidly,” said Wang Jianzhong, captain of the Xue Long.

However, currently there is no immediate danger to personnel on board the Chinese ship, Wang confirmed to AMSA.

“The ship [Xue Long] … is not in distress and … has food supplies for several weeks,” the Chinese captain said. The vessel will again try to find a way out, possibly by Monday.

The captains of both the Shokalsky and Xue Long, which remains stuck just a few kilometers from the Russian icebreaker, agreed they don’t need further help from the Australian icebreaker as they will “provide mutual support to each other,” AMSA reported.

A 22-member crew still remains on board the Russian icebreaker, which has been stuck in the ice nearly 100 nautical miles (185 kilometers) from the French Antarctic base of Dumont d'Urville. There is no threat to their lives, AMSA said.

However, if an emergency happens, “RCC Australia will maintain regular contact with the Xue Long and Akademik Shokalsky,” AMSA said.

Meanwhile, the 52 rescued scientists, journalists and tourists, who had been stranded on the Shokalsky since Christmas Eve, are now heading home on icebreaker Aurora Australis.

“Everyone is well and settling in to their new home,” Chris Turney, the leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), wrote in his blog. “The whole team has spoken warmly of the friendly and open welcome we have received on board the Aurora Australis. It’s a majestic ship.”

The rescued passengers again have to wait before they get to the Australian coast as Aurora Australis had to resupply in Australia's Antarctic base, Casey Station.

“We are now out of the pack ice and safely en route to the Australian Antarctic Division base at Casey.” Turney wrote in his blog.

The icebreaker with rescued scientists, journalists and tourists, who spent New Year on board the Shokalsky, will return to the Australian island state of Tasmania only by mid-January.

"So our time down south is not over yet and we are going to be delayed in our return to friends and family by some time yet, which is frustrating,” said Andrew Peacock, an Australian doctor and photographer who was rescued from the Russian ship.

Despite the emergency, the researchers still believe their mission on board the Russian ship was successful. The aim of the expedition was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by famous Australian explorer Douglas Mawson. The researchers have collected scores of research material of Antarctic sea life and its species. Now the scientists are ready to return with new research papers, they write in their video blogs.