Proving that Antarctic travel is still a dicey proposition – even in the 21st century – a group of passengers stranded aboard a ship off the coast of that continent were rescued yesterday following a ten-day interruption to their voyage. The 52 scientists, researchers and tourists – not to mention 22 crew – traveling on the MK Akademik Shokalskiy first ran into trouble when the ship became stuck in thick ice on Christmas Eve. A helicopter finally managed to airlift the passengers to safety, after several previous rescue attempts were stymied by bad weather and shifting ice flows.
The Russian flagged ship sailed out of New Zealand in early December and was following a course that was first sailed by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson a century ago. The month-long expedition was meant to survey changes to the Antarctic coast since Mawson’s visit, including the impact of global warming on the ice there. But on Dec. 24 the Shokalskiy encountered unexpectedly thick ice which prevented it from moving forward. At the same time, large ice flows moved in behind the vessel, cutting off all retreat in the process.
After calling for assistance, the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis was dispatched with the intention of clearing a path for the stranded Russian ship. But the Aurora also encountered problems that included heavy ice and raging blizzards, which prevented it from reaching the Shokalskiy. In the following days, at least three other vessels in the area attempted a rescue as well, but to no avail. It wasn’t until the weather cleared yesterday that a helicopter from the Chinese ship Xue Long was finally able to airlift the passengers to the Aurora.
While the 52 passengers are now safely away, the Shokalskiy remains locked in the ice. Most of her crew has remained aboard the ship, where they will wait for the obstacles to naturally clear from their course. The vessel is stocked with plenty of food, fuel and supplies for a prolonged voyage, and those who remain aboard are prepared to wait for weeks or months to get their opportunity to navigate into open water and return to port.
The journey isn’t over for those who were rescued however. The Aurora is scheduled to deliver supplies to a research station soon and crew will have to complete that mission before returning to their home port of Hobart. That could take up to two weeks, during which time the passengers will just have to patiently wait for their return to land.
Antarctica holds a undeniable allure for adventure travelers looking to add the seventh continent to their passports. But stories like this one are a good reminder that it can still be a treacherous place to visit, even with modern equipment and ships.