The Australian government is pushing to rein in private operators in the Antarctic after the multimillion-dollar rescue of a University of NSW expedition that became caught in pack ice.
A new law adopted by Australia, but yet to come into force through the Antarctic Treaty, requires all such expeditions to be fully insured for search and rescue, and have their own emergency plans.
The government also plans to beef up its ice-breaker's search and rescue capacity as it prepares to replace the ageing Aurora Australis.
The 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy's abortive trip to Commonwealth Bay arrived back in Hobart aboard Aurora Australis on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after their transfer by Chinese helicopter from the Russian ship in a four-nation rescue effort.
University of NSW expedition leader Chris Turney said the group was deeply apologetic.
''We are terribly sorry for any impact it might have had on colleagues whose work has been delayed,'' he said. ''Any experienced Antarctic scientist knows that's an inherent risk.''
Professor Turney confirmed that a critical incident preceded the entrapment of the ship on Christmas Eve, in thick pack ice about 1400 nautical miles south of Hobart.
An expedition group which had been roving in over-snow vehicles took hours to re-board the Akademik Shokalskiy after its captain, Igor Kiselev, wanted to leave because the sea ice was closing up.
''We got calls we were pulling back out,'' Professor Turney said.
Eventually the ship was halted about two nautical miles from open water by what he called ''a massive upheaval of sea ice''.
The Australian Antarctic Division distanced itself from the expedition, saying its scientific program was not reviewed by the division, and its plans were not submitted for approval.
Estimating direct costs to the Australian government at up to $2.4 million in fuel and supplies, division director Tony Fleming said it would pursue all avenues to recover the costs and minimise the taxpayer burden.
''We're having discussions with the insurers of the ship and the insurers of University of NSW, which chartered the ship,'' Dr Fleming said. ''It's up to those discussions where we will be pursuing it next.''
He said Australia's Antarctic program might need to be readjusted or delayed for next season.
The Akademik Shokalskiy rescue costs were also faced by the governments of China, France and the US, which sent ships to help.
The federal government is considering how to replace the 24-year-old Aurora Australia, which was caught in the ice for 12 days in November before it broke free.
''One of the criteria of a new vessel will be its requirement to be deployed for search and rescue events,'' Dr Fleming said.
Its captain, Murray Doyle, said his ship could break ice up to 1.3 metres thick. ''It'd be very nice to have more capability.''