A five hour helicopter evacuation to rescue the passengers of the stricken Akademik Shokalskiy is likely to begin today as weather conditions improve in Antarctica, but it could be weeks before they get off their rescue ship in Australia.
The Akademik Shokalskiy advised the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre this morning that weather conditions had improved in the area and an attempt at a rescue operation by helicopter is likely to commence shortly.
Winds in the area were down to 10 knots, and visibility had improved, but it was still a complex rescue operation involving a number of steps and subject to a number of factors, AMSA spokeswoman LIsa Martin said.
All 52 passengers will leave the Akademik Shokalskiy, and they will be rescued in groups of 12 using the helicopter on board the Chinese ship Xue Long.
Seven flights are expected to be undertaken, with the first five rescuing passengers and the final two transferring luggage and equipment.
“The helicopter component of the rescue operation is expected to take at least five hours dependent on weather conditions,” Martin said.
Passengers will then be transferred by barge to the Aurora Australis, which can take up to 22 people at a time on the two nautical mile journey from the Xue Long.
“Once the rescue operation is completed, AMSA understands the Aurora Australis will complete a resupply at the Casey Base before returning to Australia.”
The ship would spend four or five days at Casey Station, a permanent base in Antarctica managed by the Australian Antarctic Division, before setting off for Hobart, Martin said.
“It could be weeks before the passengers return to Australia depending on weather and ice conditions,” Martin said.
Passengers were feeling positive again this morning, Martin said
“Again we understand that all passengers continue to be in good spirits and are still doing fine and well, they still have adequate food supplies on the vessel.”
The rescue of the passengers from the ship was a priority, and the 22 Russian crew members would stay aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, AMSA spokesman John Young said.
“[The passengers] are in fact untrained and unable to assist if Shokalskiy experiences a deterioration of circumstances, so that’s where our priority is lying at the moment.”
It was unknown how long it would be before the Russian ship could be freed from the pack ice, or how long the crew would have to remain in Antarctica.
“The master of the Shokalskiy has chosen for the crew to remain on board in order that the ship can be freed and operated and maintained in the meantime ready for the time when the pack ice breaks up.
“That’s a matter for the master of the ship. He is confident that will be suitably safe for that period.”
The Akademik Shokalskiy was provisioned and stored for “quite a long operation with 74 people on board,” Young said.
“With 22 [crew], she’ll be able to go for a very long time.”
The ship would free herself from the pack ice when a change in the weather started to break up the pack, Young said.
“In terms of a rescue operation if circumstances were to deteriorate for Shokalskiy, we are not devoid of options to deal with that, but none of them are as good as the ones we have right at the moment.
“The master of the Shokalskiy is very well aware of that and has chosen to keep the ship operational until such time as the pack breaks up.”
The 74 people onboard the ship were retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition and conducting scientific research when the Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped in sea ice on Christmas Day.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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