Challenging task to reach stuck ship

20:46, Dec 27 2013

A ship that has been trapped in thick Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve was nearing rescue on Friday, after a Chinese icebreaker named the Snow Dragon drew close to the icebound vessel.

The Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been on a research expedition to Antarctica, got stuck Tuesday after a blizzard's whipping winds pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place.

The ship wasn't in danger of sinking, and there were ample supplies for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, but the vessel couldn't move. Four of the crew on board are New Zealanders.

Maritime authorities received the ship's distress signal on Wednesday and sent three icebreakers to assist. By Friday afternoon, China's Snow Dragon had made it as far as the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship, 20 kilometres away, but still faced the tough task of getting through the dense pack ice to the paralysed vessel.  

The Snow Dragon was hoping to reach the ship by Friday evening, but changing weather conditions and the thickness of the ice could slow its progress, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the rescue.

Expedition co-leader Chris Fogwill said the weather had improved immensely today and the blizzard had passed earlier this morning.


The Snow Dragon was now in the process of ploughing through the ice, he said.

Fogwill expected the ships would be visible within the next couple of hours, depending on the weather.

An Australian ship was also en route in case further help was needed. 

He hoped the MV Akademik Shokalskiy would be in the open water later tonight or early tomorrow morning.

''It's fantastic. We're really, really keen to move on...It might take a few hours but basically working together [the Chinese and French ice-breaking vessel] they'll be able to give us a big terminal.''

The ship was being used for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which departed from Bluff, New Zealand, on November 28. 

The privately funded expedition, led by Chris Turney, was to return to the huts used by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson a century ago. The huts had been inaccessible for many years because of an iceberg.

They plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, Turney said.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.

- Fairfax NZ and AP