Sydney (AFP) – All 52 passengers who spent Christmas and New Year trapped on an icebound Russian research vessel in Antarctica were airlifted from the ice Thursday in a dramatic rescue mission.
A Chinese helicopter which landed on a makeshift landing pad next to the marooned ship ferried the scientists, tourists and journalists in groups of 12 to an Australian government supply ship, the Aurora Australis.
The passengers had been stuck for 10 days in thick pack ice 100 nautical miles east of the French base of Dumont d’Urville after their vessel Akademik Shokalskiy became frozen in place.
Three icebreaking ships had been unable to clear a path to it.
“Aurora Australis has advised AMSA that the 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy are now on board,” the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said late Thursday.
Expedition leader Chris Turney expressed his “great relief” that the complex operation, which had been fraught with setbacks and challenges, finally went off without a hitch.
“We’ve made it to the Aurora Australis safe and sound. A huge thanks to the Chinese and the (government’s) Australian Antarctic Division for all their hard work,” Turney tweeted
The Sydney Morning Herald, which has a reporter aboard the Aurora Australis, said many of those brought off the Russian ship were relieved, with one woman crying tears of joy.
“It really has been an emotional rollercoaster,” Joanne Sim told the newspaper.
Their ordeal began on December 24 when a southerly front and blizzard trapped the Shokalskiy in a dense ice field which several icebreakers — the Australis, France’s L’Astrolabe and the Chinese-flagged Xue Long — were unable to penetrate.
Efforts to reach the Russian vessel by sea were abandoned on Tuesday in favour of an aerial rescue using the Xue Long’s helicopter, but heavy weather and sea ice stymied efforts until late Thursday.
A window of favourable weather allowed the Chinese crew to begin ferrying passengers at around 5pm Australian time (0600 GMT), with groups collected from a landing pad stamped out in the ice beside the Shokalskiy and ferried to an ice floe near the Australis.
AMSA confirmed that all passengers had reached the Australian ship at 10.16pm, some five hours after Turney first announced that the mission was underway.
Though they are free from the ice the group is not expected to reach dry land for several weeks yet, with the Australis having to travel back to the southern city of Hobart via Australia’s Casey Antarctic base to refuel.
The Shokalskiy’s crew of 22 will remain on board until the ice breaks up and she can sail on under her own steam. The ship is well provisioned and those on board have not been in any danger.
Turney posted a number of videos documenting the rescue, including the red helicopter’s first touchdown on the landing pad, the initial group of passengers trekking across the ice and a second load taking off towards the Australis.
The initial plan had been for the helicopter to ferry the passengers back to the Xue Long, where they would board a barge to be transferred to the Aurora Australis, the Australian government’s Antarctic resupply ship.
But sea ice prevented the Australis from launching its barge Thursday, forcing a rethink.
In the end, the passengers were flown via helicopter from the stranded ship to an ice floe near the Aurora Australis, and then brought on board the Australian icebreaker in a rescue ship.
AMSA had estimated the rescue would involve five trips of up to 12 passengers and another two flights for equipment and luggage.
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.
The team has been carrying out the same scientific experiments that Mawson’s group conducted during their expedition, partly in an attempt to discover how quickly the Antarctic’s sea ice is disappearing.
Board games, first-aid and other skills courses, movie marathons in the ship’s auditorium 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.
AFP Photo/Andrew Peacock