The Aurora Australis has abandoned its first attempt to cut through the ice surrounding the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy after moving just two nautical miles.
Around 6am the Aurora's captain Murray Doyle began to manoeuvre the icebreaker through thick wedges of consolidated sea ice.
But by 9am, the master made the call to turn the ship around and move back into open water.
"The ice became too thick for us to penetrate. Some of the floes are up to two metres of ice with a metre of snow on top and very compact."
"There was just nowhere for us to go," he said.
Captain Doyle also feared the 30 knot south-easterly wind running up the ship's stern would blow ice in and around the back of the vessel.
"It was pushing those same types of floes in behind us," he said.
"If we got into that compact stuff it would have sealed us in, we would have lost our manoeuvreability and we wouldn't have been much use to anybody."
"Having been caught in ice before I know by experience when to get out. I didn't want to add to the drama instead of being part of the solution," he said.
A low hanging fog also hampered rescue efforts.
"We had no visibility so we couldn't really see if there was a way through," he said.
Captain Doyle had informed the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra of the situation.
The Aurora was the third icebreaker to attempt to reach the stranded boat which is carrying more than 70 scientists, explorers and tourists.
The ship’s passengers, from Australia and New Zealand, have been stuck on the ship since Christmas Eve. The ship had been undertaking the Spirit of Mawson voyage, which is retracing Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition.
Professor Chris Turney of the University of NSW is leading the expedition, consisting of scientists, explorers and enthusiasts undertaking climate research.
He has continued to post updates about the failed rescue attempts on social media sites, saying the weather was poor but he remains hopeful since ice appears to be breaking up near the trapped ship.
‘‘Cracks are developing around the bow. Hope this helps,’’ he wrote on Twitter.
‘‘High winds this am; sorry for limited comms. Set up tent on top deck. All well. ... Waiting game!‘
‘The Aurora is the last ship in the area that will be able to help. If it can’t battle through the ice in another attempt, authorities will look at ferrying the trapped passengers to safety by helicopter.
The stranded Shokalskiy's passengers would likely be evacuated to either the Aurora or the Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, which was also in the area.
''It's now up to us three ships [the Shokalskiy, the Aurora and the Xue Long] to agree on a [rescue] strategy," Captain Doyle said.
While the Xue Long had a helicopter onboard, it was too heavy for the Aurora's helideck.
"We also can't use the helicopter at the moment because there is no visibility," he said.
"The helicopter wouldn't be able to differentiate the horizon from the ice," he said.
Captain Doyle had informed Shiokalskiy by email and radio of the current situation.
"They're OK at the moment, they've got no problems," he said.
The captain planned to wait until the weather cleared before deciding whether to cut another path through the ice.
The icebreak was designed to cut through ice floes of about 1.35 metres, not the thick ice, some of which had grown over several years, that had built up in Watt Bay.
"It wasn't all multi-year ice, there was some first year ice, which can be thick especially if it's old first year ice," he said.
The Xue Long, which has been waiting near the Mertz Glacier since Boxing Day, was also making its way back to open water.
"They're trying to make it back into open water so they're not trapped as well," Captain Doyle said.
-Fairfax NZ and AAP