Antarctic tourist ship trapped by sea ice

We woke on Christmas Day at Casey Station expecting to fly into Antarctica’s vast, white interior. Instead we found ourselves on the Aurora Australis icebreaker full steam ahead to rescue a distressed ship in Commonwealth Bay.

Early on Wednesday morning, MV Akademic Shokalskiy, a tourist ship recreating Sir Douglas Mawson’s 100-year-old Australasian Antarctic Expedition, signalled it was stuck in heavy pack ice.

While ships often get surrounded by pack ice around Antarctica, the Russian Shokalskiy, a medium-sized vessel with about 74 crew and passengers, was in danger of being hit by a large iceberg.

Just before 5am the Rescue Co-ordination Centre, part of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority in Canberra, ordered three ships, a Chinese and French vessel and the Aurora Australis, to lend assistance.

Since Sunday the Aurora Australis has been anchored near Casey Station where six hundred thousand tonnes of cargo and fuel were transported from the ship to the mainland for the coming year.

The station was about halfway through its annual resupply when the ship was sent a rescue order.

It took less than five hours for the ship's crew and station staff to reload the ship, board new passengers, including ourselves, and recoil the fuel line – a mammoth task.

It will take about four days of sailing for the Aurora Australis to reach Commonwealth Bay, about 1100 nautical miles from Casey.

At any time the ship could be stood down from the emergency, but until that moment we sail ahead.

On board the Akademic Shokalskiy are scientists from the University of NSW, a journalist from the Guardian and dozens of tourists who have paid to be part of the recreation of Mawson’s expedition.

Those people who have ventured to the south continent talk of the “A-factor” – rarely does anything in Antarctica go as planned.

While we miss out on a trip to the Aurora Basin ice core drilling site, the dramatic halt to resupply may have a significant effect on those we left behind at Casey. Science projects may be postponed or delayed. And those wintering at the station may not see their belongings for some time.

Whether the Aurora Australis returns to station or heads home to Hobart after this mission will depend on many factors, said the ship’s captain, Murray Doyle, and the voyage leader, Leanne Millhouse.

And while Christmas Day was far from what we were expecting, we doubt those aboard the Academic Shokalskiy are having a jolly time either. They are expecting blizzards and 50-knot winds from Thursday.

Nicky Phillips and Colin Cosier are travelling on board the Aurora Australis as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.

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