Crew on board a Russian-flagged fishing boat which hit an iceberg in Antarctica's Ross Sea, are frantically trying to remove water from the vessel and repair a hole in its hull.
It could take several days before other boats reach the 708 deadweight-tonne Sparta, which is in distress after hitting an underwater iceberg.
The 23-year-old Sparta issued a distress call around 3am, the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) said.
A Hercules aircraft flew over Sparta today to assess ice conditions in the area. The ice was around 1.5 metres thick, RCCNZ said.
"Things are improving, but things are in a very serious situation," Andrey Kulish of San Diego's Sedna Industries Inc said.
Three vessels were heading toward the 23-year-old Sparta, but were having difficulty reaching it as there was heavy sea ice in the area, RCCNZ said.
Kulish believed the collision split a weld in the hull about 1.5 metres below the waterline. It had created a hole which flooded Sparta's biggest hold.
"We are using every pump we have and the water is starting to go down."
The crew was working to redistribute the vessel load and to repair a hole in the hull, RCCNZ said.
The 48m vessel, with 32 crew on board, had a 30cm hole in the side, 1.5 metres below the water line, RCCNZ search and rescue mission coordinator Ramon Davis said.
The vessel was on a 13 degree lean and was still taking on water.
"So far, the crew has managed to keep up with the ingress of water. They have also attached a tarpaulin on the outside of the hull which is helping slow the rate of water into the hold." Davis said.
"If they can get all the water out of the hold that might lighten the ship enough for the hole to be above the water line, and allow the crew to repair the damage."
The crew had asked RCCNZ to provide more pumps to speed up the process, Davis said.
Kullish said they had rigged a tarpaulin around the hull and as the pumps reduced the water-level, the tarpaulin was sealing the hole under pressure and stopping any more flooding.
Officers and some crew remained on the ship trying to save it but the junior sailors and observers were nearby in life rafts, Maritime New Zealand said.
The 48-metre ship, which was long-lining for Ross Sea toothfish, sent a distress call at 3am today as it took in water and began listing.
It was 1000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand's Antarctic Scott Base and inside the rescue zone of the Wellington-based Rescue Coordination Centre (RCCNZ) which was coordinating the rescue mission.
A New Zealand boat, Sanford's partly ice-strengthened San Aspiring was heading toward Sparta.
Another Russian boat run by Sedna, the 24-year-old Chiyo Maru no. 3, was moving toward Sparta, but it could not go through ice.
RCCNZ search and rescue mission coordinator Ramon Davis said San Aspiring was 870 kilometres from Sparta but would take four to five days to reach her.
A third vessel was 35 kilometres away, but was hemmed in by heavy ice and was unable to proceed.
A US Air Force C130 Hercules from McMurdo Sound was due over the scene this afternoon.
Sparta's crew, 15 Russians, 16 Indonesians and a Ukrainian, were safe, Davis said.
Kulish said Chiyo Maru had a professional diver aboard and they expected other ships would have underwater welding gear with them.
They would perform repairs where they were.
"We are hoping to keep fishing," Kulish said.
The Hobart-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) licensed Sparta to bottom-fish for Ross Sea toothfish, one of the most lucrative catches in the world.
It showed Sparta was registered to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on Russia's Pacific coast and was operated by ZAO Morskoi Voron "Sea Raven".
Kulish said the vessel was now owned by another Petropavlovsk company owned by Sedna, which has a 10-boat fleet.
CCAMLR photos of Sparta showed an aging vessel but Kulish said it had undergone a major refit.
Photos he provided showed the vessel with much of its after-half rebuilt.
Kulish said it had passed recent surveys and inspections.
Operating out of Montevideo in Uruguay, Sparta was also carrying 180 tons of light fuel oil in a pristine ocean which was home to a large percentage of the world's penguins, including Emperor and Adelies.
In fishing jargon, the Ross Sea is known as an "Olympic fishery" because those with quota have to fish in the limited season regardless of the weather conditions.
On December 13 last year, the No 1 Insung, a 31-year-old Korean toothfish longliner with Vietnamese crew operating out of Bluff, sank in the same area with the loss of 22 men.
In February this year a Norway-flagged yacht, Berserk, sank north of Scott Base, forcing HMNZS Wellington, an off-shore patrol boat, into a lengthy and dangerous search. Three men died in that sinking.
Toothfish, a late-maturing, slow-growing, long-lived species that can grow up two metres long, fetch about US$70 (NZ$95) a kilogram. The US takes about 80 per cent of New Zealand's catch, much of it ending up in Las Vegas.
- © Fairfax NZ News