Akademik Shokalskiy rescue: How mission came undone by 'one giant meringue'

An ice-breaker at work is an impressive sight. After more than five days of steaming 1100 nautical miles towards Commonwealth Bay, the Aurora Australis finally began her slow crawl over thick pack ice just before 6am on Monday.

Those passengers such as myself who were keen to see the action gathered on the bridge from 5.30am to watch the crew navigate a path through the first slabs.

On the pack's outer edge there is little room to move between the sections of ice, which have been pushed together like pieces of a puzzle that don't quite fit. The Aurora's controlled pitch propeller and large rudder give captain Murray Doyle maximum manoeuvrability. He winds the ship through any free space.

We're now about 9.7 nautical miles from the Russian research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy, which got stuck in ice while retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition.

It's just a total white-out

Sea ice in Antarctica typically forms ice cakes, flat slabs less than 20 metres across, or larger ice floes.

In Watt Bay, these floes are topped with up to a metre of snow, making some more than three metres thick. The low fog makes it hard to see more than 100 metres ahead.

We aren't travelling long before we encounter floes that have been frozen together. This is what surrounds the Akademik Shokalskiy. This is what will challenge the Aurora. The 24-year-old ice-breaker is built to cut through 1.35 metres of ice, two metres with a big push.

For almost two nautical miles Doyle puts the Aurora to work. She begins by tipping her bow forward, mounting the ice and crushing it with her weight. The ship shudders from time to time.


Outside on the deck the temperature dips to minus 1.6, but the 30 knots of wind from the south-east has bite.

The wind concerns Doyle. He knows how quickly ice floes could blow in and around the Aurora's stern, turning the rescuers into those who need to be rescued.

About 8am the captain closes the bridge. His crew need to concentrate.

An hour later and the ship has turned around and is heading out of the pack.

"The ice became too thick for us to penetrate," he says.

"There was just nowhere for us to go."

Behind us is one giant meringue, in front, open water. Doyle decides to sit and wait until the weather clears. Not much can happen until then, but a helicopter evacuation of the Shokalskiy passengers is looking likely.

"It's just a total white-out," says Doyle.

The bridge is reopened and a few passengers pop in to see what has happened.

The mood on board the Aurora remains upbeat. Many expeditioners were on their way back to Australia after months, even over a year, at Antarctic stations when their ride home was diverted from Casey station.

But as one Aurora passenger, Macquarie University scientist Grant Hose, put it: "You have to accept uncertainty when you travel down south.

"And we'd like to think someone would come and rescue us if we got into trouble," he says.

The Aurora’s voyage leader Leanne Millhouse said the ice-breaker would most likely return to Casey station if it picked up the stranded passengers and crew to complete the station’s annual resupply before returning to Hobart in mid-January.

Nicky Phillips and Colin Cosier are travelling in Antarctica as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.