Thick ice forces icebreaker retreat
An attempt by the Aurora Australis to free the ship Akademik Shokalskiy from sea ice in Antarctic was abandoned early Monday, says captain Murray Doyle.PT2M45S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-303k4 620 349 December 31, 2013
Fearing it would become entrapped by deadly sea ice, the crew of the Aurora Australis have abandoned their rescue mission of the Akademik Shokalskiy in Antarctica. A new strategy to free the stricken vessel and its passengers will be developed on Tuesday.
I didn't want to add to the drama, instead of being part of the solution.
The Australian icebreaker came within 11 nautical miles of the trapped Russian vessel before abandoning its mission.
Closing in: View from the stern of the Aurora Australis before it abandoned its rescue attempt. Photo: Colin Cosier
More than 70 scientists, explorers and tourists from Australia and New Zealand have been stuck on the ship since Christmas Eve.
The Akademik Shokalskiy had been on the Spirit of Mawson voyage, retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition.
Aurora Australis arrived near the Antarctic coast at 2am Sydney time on Monday in a bid to break through the pack ice surrounding Akademik Shokalskiy.
Abandoned ship: The Akademik Shokalskiy remains trapped in pack ice while rescuers consider their options. Photo: Andrew Peacock
Aurora Australis' captain, Murray Doyle, said his ship's master made the call to turn the ship around and move back into open water about midday Australian time.
''The ice became too thick for us to penetrate,'' he said.
''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.''
Captain Doyle also feared that the 55-kilometre 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.''
A low-hanging fog also hampered rescue efforts.
''We had no visibility so we couldn't really see if there was a way through.''
Captain Doyle had informed the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Canberra of the situation.
The passengers on the Akademik Shokalskiy would likely be evacuated to the Aurora or Chinese icebreaker the Xue Long, which was also in the area.
''It's now up to us three ships to agree on a [rescue] strategy,'' Captain Doyle said. Although the Xue Long had a helicopter aboard, 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.''
Captain Doyle had informed the Akademik Shokalskiy by email and radio of the 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 icebreaker was designed to cut through ice floes of about 1.35 metres, not the thick ice built up in Watt Bay,which is not far from the the stricken vessel, some of which has grown over several years.
''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.
Nicky Phillips and Colin Cosier are travelling on board the Aurora Australis as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.