Morale good despite chilling wait
Peering through their cabin porthole from the stuckfast Akademik Shokalskiy, former Nelsonians Jon and Barbara Tucker were impressed by the scale of the Chinese rescue vessel Xue Long - the Snow Dragon.
"The ship seemed huge, and we knew there was a helicopter aboard. It was certainly a relief to know there were other people so close," Barbara Tucker says.
Her and Jon and more than 70 others on the Russian "Shokalskiy" became stranded in the Antarctic ocean just before Christmas last year when a storm swept overhead, freezing a passage of water that was to be their escape route.
The captain had decided to edge close to the ice-edge, allowing paying tourists an opportunity to touch down on Antarctic bedrock. But a forecast blizzard meant time was precious.
Hours were spent waiting for the sightseers to return from the mainland beyond radio reach, with the captain anxiously eyeing his instruments.
"The pack ice in this vicinity is dynamic and dangerous," Jon says. "There is no time to lose when it begins to close in."
By that afternoon the menacing signs of a massive weather breakout appeared on the radar. But, with impossible communication and slow moving tourist shuttles, it took more than three hours to get all passengers back on board.
The Shokalskiy began forcing its way back through the heavy ice which had already formed to block their escape.
"The distance to safe water had increased to 35 kilometres, through a jumbled mass of truck-sized icefloes.
"The ship was badly battered, and a large iceberg was ploughing steadily towards his ship, estimated to pass within 300 metres," Jon says. "The captain knew he was beaten."
He hit the distress button, swinging into action an international rescue mission. "But it was not a straightforward rescue."
Ice quickly threatened the Snow Dragon too, with Captain Wong forced to turn off the engines after crossing a critical sheerline between medium and super-heavy multiyear sea ice that was well beyond the ship's icebreaking capacity.
Captain Wong was unable to turn the long ship to retreat from the freezing waters, and soon the rescue vessel herself was stuckfast.
The captain then made his own emergency call, to co-ordinate with another nearby icebreaker, the Australian Aurora Australis, which was due to arrive two days later.
Ten anxious days passed before the polar weather calmed enough to evacuate the Russian icebreaker of its 52 passengers - a mix of scientific researchers, Antarctic specialists and tourists.
Twenty-two crew remained on the Akademik, and 101 Chinese on the Snow Dragon, awaiting further assistance. Jon and Barbara ended up safely on Aurora Australis, from where they wrote their recollections for this account, bound for Australia's Casey Base on the Antarctic mainland.
Both had joined the Russian expedition to do urgent restoration work on Mawson's Hutt, Australia's oldest, 100-year-old, Antarctic building.
As it turned out, a tight work schedule, made tighter by the sightseeing demands of tourists, meant they were only able to spend two days at the hut, instead of an estimated nine.
"There were clearly compromises," Jon says, regarding the Russian expedition's blend of science and tourism, which was an unusual mix intended to defray the expedition's massive cost.
"As a concept, it had its drawbacks," Jon said.
"The ship's zodiacs and Argos [eight-wheel-drive vehicles] were required for both science work and sightseeing.
"Where possible the passengers became involved as volunteers. However, at times the scientists missed out on potential opportunities because of the need for a balanced programme. Also, the average biologist is relatively young and fit, whereas many tourists are retirees with health issues."
During the uncertain waiting period, after the Snow Dragon became stuck, morale remained pretty good, Jon says, "although a few were distinctly nervous".
"The type of person to come on a trip like this isn't your average tourist. There was a good rapport between the scientists, the tourists and our Mawson Hut team as well as the ship's crew. For example some of us tried a basic Russian language lesson, and we kept up a regime of presentations twice daily.
"The biggest frustration for some of us was that the ship's bridge was abruptly closed to all passengers which for me and Barbara meant that we no longer had access to the radar, navigation instruments and some ice charts," Jon says.
"We knew that some of the information we were being briefed on was incorrect, and most of us were extremely aware of how much the situation had inconvenienced many other Antarctic programmes."
Jon noted that passengers on this particular voyage were not required to carry out the usually comprehensive medical checks, which are mandatory with the Australian Antarctic programme.
He and Barbara say they don't wish to comment at this point about the potentially life-threatening decision made by Russian voyage leaders to enter into the Mertz polynya (area of open water surrounded by sea ice) despite a forecast southeasterly gale.
"Doubtless that decision will be analysed in due course in a formal enquiry," Jon says.
"Certainly it did offer a chance for tourists to reach Antarctic land (as opposed to landing on sea ice), but many would have been equally happy to have simply continued to the nearby Magnetic Pole and then to some subantarctic island locations, which were on the agenda."
However that decision is reviewed in hindsight, the rescue operation was professional and successful, Jon says.
"The Chinese pilot and ground crew knew exactly what to do. We'd never seen such a huge helicopter before, and it looked brand-new. Even the nervous passengers relaxed.
"We all had mixed feelings about the captain's decision to have 52 of us evacuated and retain his crew, but we could understand his reasons," Barbara says.
"Among the passengers were tourists with potential health issues. In addition, the ship's resources - particularly food supplies - were very finite. There were some tears though, as we made our farewells to the crew."
"We are all incredibly grateful," says Jon, aware that more than 100 seamen remained trapped on the ice.
"It's a sobering thought, and none of us will be able to truly relax until they are all out of the ice again."
Currently Jon and Barbara are on the Aurora Australis. They expect to land at Casey Base this week, as that vessel continues its scheduled Antarctic missions. Instead of returning to New Zealand this week as planned, they will now be ferried home to Hobart late this month.
Since the evacuation, the Snow Dragon and the Akademik Shokalskiy have become free of the sea ice without assistance.
Jon and Barbara attended Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls, respectively, and Barbara's parents still live in Tahunanui.
During his university days, Jon built a 40-foot (12m) yacht, on which he and Barbara have sailed the Pacific Ocean and raised five boys. Their home base is in Hobart, Tasmania.
In 2008, Jon was deputy leader of an Australian restoration expedition to Mawson's Hutt.
In 2006, Jon joined an excursion to Antarctica on his son Ben's 34-foot yacht the Sea Petrel.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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