Antarctica: Chinese rescue vessel ‘may now be stuck in ice’ — The Chinese ice-breaker Xue Long that helped rescue passengers stranded on the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy may now itself be stuck in the ice, say reports.
An Australian ice-breaker, the Aurora Australis, now carrying the rescued passengers has been placed on standby, waiting to see if the Xue Long needs assistance.
On Thursday, the a helicopter from Xue Long transferred 52 passengers from the Russian vessel to the Aurora Australis. The Russian ship has been trapped in the thick ice since December 24.
“Xue Long notified Amsa [the Australian Maritime Safety Authority]… this afternoon [that] it has concerns about their ability to move through heavy ice in the area,” said Amsa in a statement.
“[Xue Long] will attempt to manoeuvre through the ice when tidal conditions are most suitable during the early hours of 4 January”. Amsa added that there was no immediate danger to the crew on the Xue Long, said a BBC report.
But the Australian Aurora Australis has been asked and will remain in open water nearby as a precautionary measure.
Andrew Luck-Baker, a BBC reporter, is on board the Australian ship and said: “The irony of the situation is that the Xue Long was originally summoned to break a clear route through the pack ice to the smaller Russian vessel. That was not possible and the large icebreaker is now trapped itself.
“As a precautionary measure, the Australian icebreaker has been put on standby to assist the Xue Long, if needs be. All the vessels involved in this drama are within a sea area of East Antarctica that is claimed by Australia. Hence, the coordinating role lies with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.”
It is the latest twist in an increasingly complicated rescue mission in Antarctica.
The Russian research vessel was being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) 2013 to follow the route travelled by explorer Douglas Mawson a century ago, but the Shokalskiy became stuck in the ice on December 24.
Several earlier attempts to break through to the Russian research vessel failed because of the thickness of the ice.
So on Thursday, the Xue Long helicopter was able to fly the Shokalskiy passengers and researchers in groups to an ice floe next to the Aurora Australis.
From there, they were ferried to the Australian ship by a small boat.
AAE members had high praise for the Chinese captain, Jianzhong Wang, and his crew.
Prof Tracey Rogers, a University of New South Wales marine biologist, said “The Chinese captain is an incredible ambassador for his country.”
Prof Rogers also lauded the helicopter evacuation team that had to make five separate flights to carry the AAE members from the stranded Shokalskiy to a makeshift helipad near the Aurora Australis.
“Under really difficult circumstances, they were efficient, fast and so well coordinated,” she said.
“Those Chinese guys are heroes,” said Nicole De Losa, the head of Art at Hornsby Girls High School in Sydney.
“They made what could have been a frightening experience so quick and easy for us. Without them, we would still be stranded.”
Prof Chris Turney, a co-leader of the AAE 2013, said that he was sorry to hear the Xue Long was now having difficulty: “We are hoping that they, along with the crew of the Shokalskiy, will be free as soon as possible”.
The area is expected to experience a particularly high tide on Saturday, Jan 4, at about 0400 GMT.
“The extra vertical forces on the ice floes may help to crack and weaken the consolidated pack around the Xue Long, giving it new opportunities to navigate out of the ice.
“The Aurora will wait until the effect of the high tide on the Xue Long’s situation becomes clear,” explained Andrew Luck-Baker.
“If the Chinese vessel can escape the pack, the Aurora will continue on its way to Casey.
“If the Xue Long remains trapped, the Australian vessel will maintain its position until there is a new alternative plan agreed.”
The Xue Long has 111 individuals on board, and the Shokalskiy has a remaining crew of 22, according to reports.