Chinese icebreaker trapped after helping in Antarctic rescue

A Chinese icebreaker that went to the aid of a trapped Russian ship has itself become caught in the Antarctic ice. Meanwhile, the Australian boat carrying the recued passengers has cracked through the ice and resumed its original mission.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a statement Saturday that the Chinese ship Xue Long had confirmed “it is beset by ice.”

On Thursday, the Xue Long used its helicopter to ferry dozens of passengers on the stranded Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy to the safety of the Aurora Australis.

The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, came tantalisingly close to cutting through heavy ice to reach the Shokalskiy a week ago but had to abandon its attempt. It has hardly moved in recent days.

Chinese news agency Xinhua, which has reporters onboard the Xue Long, said the ship’s passage had been blocked since Friday by a drifting, one-kilometre long iceberg.

Captain Wang Jianzhong said the constantly changing position of the massive iceberg, which had come within 1.2 nautical miles to the ship, and other ice floes was making conditions complex, Xinhua reported.

The Chinese vessel will only attempt to free itself after this huge block of ice moves away, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urging the ship’s team to stay calm as they wait for the best moment to act.

The Shokalskiy remains stuck in ice 100 nautical miles from the French Antarctic base of Dumont d’Urville with 22 crew on board.

Several attempts by icebreakers to reach the Russian ship failed but a helicopter from the Xue Long lifted 22 scientists, 26 paying passengers and four journalists off the ship and landed them on the Aurora Australis.

Australian authorities had told the Aurora Australis to stay in the area but on Saturday it released the ship to continue its journey to Casey Station, Australia’s Antarctic base, where it is due to complete the delivery of supplies before heading to the Australian city of Hobart.

“The masters of both Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long agree that further assistance from Aurora Australis is no longer required and they will be able to provide mutual support to each other,” AMSA said.

Scientists spitting tacks

The French ship the Astrolabe also joined the rescue mission, forcing scientists on boar to scrap a two-week oceanographic campaign, Yves Frenot, director of the French Polar Institute, said.

“But we are relatively lucky. The Chinese have had to cancel their entire scientific programme, and my counterpart in Australia is spitting tacks with anger, because their entire summer has been wiped out,” he said.

The Aurora had offloaded only 70 percent of its cargo at Casey last month when it was sent to join the rescue.

“The diversion will inevitably squeeze an already tight season,” Jason Mundy, acting director of the Australian Antarctic Division, said Friday, He said the rescue had stretched resources for the summer research program, which he hoped to recoup from the Russian ship’s insurer.

The trip on the Akademik Shokalskiy was aimed at emulating a 1911-1914 expedition by the Australian explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson and Frenot said “this kind of commemorative expedition has no interest from a scientific point of view”.

The scientists onboard, assisted by the passengers, were repeating century-old measurements to discover the environmental changes taking place in the frozen southern region.

Australian authorities have said that any inquiry into how the Shokalskiy came to be stranded would have to be conducted by Russian authorities but have acknowledged that the incident could have an impact guidelines for polar expeditions.

Meanwhile, an Antarctic tourism operator that has leased the Shokalskiy said it hoped the Russian icebreaker will be free in time to take 48 sightseers on a cruise of Antarctica’s Ross Sea which is due to start on January 17.

“The last report we had from the ship is that her integrity is sound and she’s in good shape,” Heritage Expeditions general manager David Bowen said.” If the wind blew from the right direction for a day or two, she could sail free.”