Ship stuck in ice but science carries on

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 05:00 29/12/2013
Kerry-Jayne Wilson
TRAPPED: Ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson is among scientists on board ship trapped in sea ice.

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A New Zealand scientist who has just charted an environmental disaster that killed thousands of penguins is among scientists trapped in sea ice on board a Russian expedition ship in Antarctica.

Ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson from Charleston on the West Coast is one of 74 aboard the ice-strengthened MV Akademik Shokalskiy trapped in the Australian Antarctic Territory's Commonwealth Bay.

The ship was to have been broken out of ice yesterday by the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long or Snow Dragon but 11 kilometres short the would-be rescuer also became stuck.

Yesterday afternoon the French research ship L'Astrolabe arrived at the ice edge but unless the wind changes and breaks up the ice, they will now wait for Australia's large icebreaker Aurora Australis.

The University of New South Wales-led expedition on the Russian ship is marking the centenary of Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson.

Wilson, chair of the Blue Penguin Trust, doesn't see much comparison. "Mawson did it harder than us," she told the Sunday Star-Times while standing on the blizzard-exposed top deck of the Shokalskiy.

"I don't think Mawson had chefs to produce three cooked meals a day and I think Mawson had to go outside to the toilet."

The beds on the ship were warm and they had enough food for another month before thinking about eating penguins.

"We have work that we can continue with and there are a few good movies being shown.... Everyone is keeping busy and keeping well."

More frustrating for Wilson is dealing with her discovery at nearby Cape Denison.

A massive Adelie penguin colony has been cut off from the sea for four years by an iceberg.

She had to travel 65 kilometres in tracked vehicles over the ice to reach the colony.

"The penguins are doing it very hard," she said.

"There has been massive breeding failure from dead chicks last year and abandoned eggs."

The penguins have to walk the same distance to reach the sea - they are as trapped by the ice as the scientists are.

"We are suffering the same, well not quite the same; for them it is breeding failure, but that is not going to happen on the ship."

Her trust was committed to adult education and sharing science. "Being caught in the ice has not been such a bad thing, people are now asking what we are doing."

She felt no danger on what was a "good strong ship".

"It is just a question of sitting and waiting for the icebreakers to get us out or for the wind direction to change and for the ice to loosen up and we can make us out."

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Australian medical doctor Andrew Peacock, who is the expedition photographer, was marvelling at the opportunities he was finding.

"The light is marvellous and the ice changes all the time."

They can go on to the ice - often met by Adelie penguins checking them out. In the "evening" - for the sun doesn't actually set - they lecture each other on their particular science skills.

Shokalskiy's troubles come at a time of concern over the state of shipping in the Southern Ocean where troubled vessels are beyond easy help. Several ships have sunk or run into trouble on the Antarctic Peninsula and New Zealand's Ross Sea has seen Korean and Russian fishing boats sink with fatalities.

If this latest drama drags out it could significantly delay the Chinese icebreaker, which was bound for the Ross Sea.

Xue Long was to begin work on building a new Chinese base at Terra Nova Bay, 300 kilometres north of New Zealand's Scott Base.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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