Updated: 01/02/2014 13:39 | By Agence France-Presse

Sea ice stalls complex Antarctic rescue bid

Sea ice stalled a planned helicopter rescue of passengers on a Russian ship trapped in frozen Antarctic seas Thursday, despite improved weather conditions that had raised hopes the complex operation could proceed.


Sea ice stalls complex Antarctic rescue bid

Ben Maddison and Ben Fisk attempt to place a wind indicator atop an ice block near the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, still stuck in the ice off East Antarctica, December 31, 2013

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) had planned to begin an airlift of 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy after heavy rain and winds cleared at the site, 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont d'Urville.

The group, stranded in pack ice since December 24, was to be flown to a nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long using its helicopter and transferred by barge to the more distant Australian resupply vessel Aurora Australis before leaving the Antarctic.

But the complex, multi-vessel operation hit a snag when the Aurora Australis's barge was unable to reach the Xue Long due to sea ice, forcing AMSA to call off the bid.

"It is now likely the rescue will not go ahead today," AMSA said.

"The Xue Long's helicopter is unable to land on the Aurora Australis due to load rating restrictions, and it is not safe to land the helicopter next to Aurora Australis at this time," it added.

"The preferred option is to wait for conditions that will allow the rescue to be completed in a single operation to reduce unnecessary risk." 

AMSA said the "preferred and safest option at this stage is to ultimately transfer the passengers onto the Aurora Australis," and that alternative options were now being examined with the crews of the Australis and the Xue Long.

The Australian authority, which is coordinating the rescue, said it was a "complex operation" which was dependent on weather and ice conditions, both of which could change extremely rapidly.

"The priority is to ensure the safety of all involved," it said.

Expedition leader Chris Turney had been hopeful of a rescue on Thursday, posting a video about the improved weather conditions.

"A stunning day. Hopefully we'll hear about the evacuation soon," he said. 

The helicopter operation follows several failed icebreaking attempts, with the Xue Long, Aurora Australis and French-flagged L'Astrolabe all forced to turn back by impenetrable ice.

Outlining the aerial rescue plan earlier Thursday, AMSA said passengers would be flown from the Akademik Shokalskiy in five groups of up to 12, with two extra flights to transfer luggage and equipment.

"Each return flight is expected to take about 45 minutes. The journey will cover a distance of about 12 nautical miles between the MV Akademik Shokalskiy and the Xue Long," AMSA said.

"The helicopter component of the rescue operation is expected to take at least five hours dependent on weather conditions," it said.

Although the ship is well provisioned and not in any immediate danger, the Russian crew who have had to spend Christmas and New Year marooned amid snow storms and blizzards are now preparing to wait until the ice breaks up. 

Passengers on the stranded ship -- an eclectic mix of scientists, tourists and journalists -- had been following in the footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition, in part to explore how quickly the Antarctic's sea ice is disappearing.

Board games, first-aid and other skills courses and walks on the ice have helped to pass the time. They even penned a theme song about their adventure and filmed themselves singing it on the top deck.   

Though they are in remote Antarctica the group dropped in on one of the world's biggest New Year's parties, broadcasting live to celebrations in New York's Times Square from their marooned vessel.

Because the Australis will have to travel via Australia's Casey Antarctic base to refuel, officials say it will be several weeks before the passengers return to dry land once the rescue is complete. 

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