A helicopter crew rescues passengers on a research ship trapped in the Antarctic ice

January 03, 2014

The first group of passengers from a stranded Russian research ship reaches the rescue helicopter on January 2 in this photo taken by expedition doctor Andrew Peacock.

On December 24, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian research ship carrying 52 passengers and 22 crew members, became trapped in the Antarctic ice. In the following days, three different rescue attempts by icebreakers failed. Finally, on January 2, a Chinese helicopter swooped in to take the passengers off the ship. Scientists and tourists who were onboard the ship were flown in groups to a nearby Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis.

Akademik Shokalskiy passengers stretching their legs on the ice and pose for a picture in front of the stuck ship on December 28.

Akademik Shokalskiy passengers stretch their legs on the ice and pose for a picture in front of the stuck ship on December 28.

Climate scientist and expedition leader Chris Turney spoke to the Associated Press by satellite phone about the long-awaited rescue. “I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home,” he said.

A Shortened Expedition

The research ship had departed New Zealand for Antarctica on November 28. It became locked in thick sea ice on Christmas Eve after strong winds pushed the ice around the ship, freezing it in place. The ship is trapped about 1,700 miles south of the Australian island of Tasmania.

Three icebreakers—ships designed to create passages through ice—were sent to try to reach the ship, but all three failed. The Aurora Australis came within 12 miles of the ship on December 30, but severe weather forced it to return to open water.

Blinding snow, strong winds, and ice conditions thwarted all the rescue attempts, which were organized by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre. On January 2, the group identified a large patch of sea ice near the Aurora Australis that could be used as a landing spot for a helicopter.

Passengers link arms and stamp out a helicopter landing site on the ice near the ship on December 31.

Passengers link arms and stamp out a helicopter landing site on the ice near the ship on December 31.

A helicopter from a Chinese icebreaker named the Snow Dragon was then able to begin flights to the stranded Russian ship. The helicopter carried the passengers in groups of 12 to a landing spot, where a small boat ferried them to the Australian ship.

The Aurora Australis will take the 52 passengers to Tasmania. The journey is expected to last two weeks. The Akademik Shokalskiy’s 22 crew members have remained on board. They plan to wait until the ice that surrounds the ship breaks up. The ship has plenty of supplies on board and is not in danger of sinking.

Turney and his team of researchers were aboard the research ship as part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. They had hoped to recreate Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 100-year-old voyage to Antarctica to study how the environment has changed since the original journey.

The scientists used the time before their rescue to gather research near the ship, including counting birds and drilling through ice to photograph sea life. The expedition has been cut short, but Turney said his spirits remain high. “I’m a bit sad it’s ended this way,” he said. “But we got lots and lots of great science done.”

TFK is headed to Antarctica. Starting January 11, visit to learn about the icy continent and keep up with the adventures of science writer David Bjerklie.

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