Akademik Shokalskiy passengers rescued
Three-nation air-and-sea rescue in Antarctica successfully transfers passengers to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis. Colin Cosier reports.
The last of the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy passengers have safely boarded their rescue ship, the Aurora Australis, four hours after the high risk rescue operation began.
Many of the 52 passengers from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which chartered the Russian ship, appeared relieved to be rescued.
The last four passengers to board included the expedition co-leaders Greg Mortimer and Chris Fogwill, a scientist from the University of NSW.
The new arrivals have been shown to their rooms and eaten their first meal in the Aurora's mess.
Grant Hose, a scientist from Macquarie University who signed in passengers as they came aboard, said it had been interesting to watch such a complex rescue unfold.
"The [Shokalskiy] passengers have been very grateful," he said.
Joanne Sim, a paying passenger from Sydney, said it felt great to be on the Aurora after being stuck in the ice.
"It really has been an emotional rollercoaster," said the Sydneysider, who cried as she boarded the Australian icebreaker.
She said Shokalskiy passengers had occupied their days with a range of activities including movies and games.
They had even been allowed out on the ice when the conditions were safe, she said.
The mission began at 4pm when four Australian Antarctic Division staff were lowered to the ice in a small boat to prepare the helicopter landing area and a safe walking passage to the Aurora Australis for the Shokalskiy passengers.
The Chinese ice-breaker Xue Long sent a helicopter crew to test the landing area before it left to collect the passengers.
Decks on the Aurora Australis were closed as the operation began.
Plans to rescue the passengers changed on Thursday morning when it became apparent the Xue Long was itself unable to move out of the pack ice. The original plan was to fly the passengers back to the Xue Long and then to the Aurora Australis using a barge.
While the Chinese ice-breaker has not issued a distress call for assistance, the Aurora Australis spent most of Wednesday trying to navigate a path between the two vessels.
A scientist with an international ice-drilling project said the failure of Akademik Shokalskiy's "Spirit of Mawson" expedition was having an enormous effect, as the already hard-pressed Australian program was squeezed further.
An understanding between Antarctic Treaty nations that all countries make themselves available to help each other in trouble has also delayed the Xue Long from executing plans for Beijing's ambitious polar station-building program.
Expedition leaders on the Akademik Shokalskiy include experienced Sydney polar adventure tourism operator Greg Mortimer and University of NSW professor Chris Turney.
Professor Turney said the expedition was "incredibly grateful" for the extraordinary international effort.
The Russian ship has a long record of Antarctic adventure tourism - including being first into Commonwealth Bay in January 2012 for the Douglas Mawson centenary.
When it became stuck on Christmas Eve in heavy pack ice near the bay it forced the Australian government to interrupt a critical resupply of Casey base and send the Aurora Australis to the rescue, leaving some polar researchers' gear on board.
"Short- and long-term impacts on the Australian science program are pronounced, as you can imagine," American research professor Joe McConnell told The New York Times.
"Many of these guys can't complete the research they've been planning for years because some or all of their science gear still is on the Aurora."
Dr McConnell, who is from Nevada's Desert Research Institute, was at Casey for the ice-drilling project.
With the rescue operation still under way, it was too early to determine what impact it would have on the Australian program, a spokeswoman for the Australian Antarctic Division said.
"It will inevitably squeeze an already tight season," she said.
Earlier this summer, Aurora Australis itself lost 12 days when it became stuck in pack ice off Davis base during a resupply.
The Xue Long had disembarked a construction team near Davis to build China's fourth Antarctic base, and was on its way to Terra Nova Bay in the Ross Sea where it planned to build a fifth station when it was called in, according to Chinese media reports.
The official polar tourism industry body, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, distanced itself from the "Spirit of Mawson" expedition.
"Although this is not an IAATO member expedition, we are following the situation," it said.
with Andrew Darby and Colin Cosier
Nicky Phillips and Colin Cosier are travelling in Antarctica as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.