Stranded In Antarctica, Scientists Aboard Ice-Lodged Ship, MV Akademik Shokalskiy, Await Helicopter Rescue

By Ben Wolford on December 30, 2013 4:44 PM EST

Stranded Ship
Barbara Tucker, a passenger aboard the trapped ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy looks at an Adelie penguin walking by on the ice off East Antarctica. Photo: Reuters

A team of scientists, along with journalists, tourists, and crew, have been stranded in eastern Antarctica (here) for nearly one week after a storm pushed ice against their ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy. Now, after two icebreakers failed to reach them, a Chinese helicopter is preparing to evacuate all but the 22 crew members on board, according to reports in The New York Times and elsewhere.

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The Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy embarked Nov. 27 from New Zealand as part of a centennial anniversary voyage recreating the journey of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. The group calls itself The Spirit of Mawson after Douglas Mawson, the leader of the original expedition, which lasted from 1911-1914 and charted a vast, previously unknown region. It ended poorly, and two of the three leaders died, one from falling down a crevasse. Mawson barely made it out alive.

But modern luxuries are keeping the new Australasian Antarctic Expedition team comfortable while they wait for rescue crews to reach them. So far, though, it's been slow going. "A disappointing day," leader Chris Turney said in a Vine video he posted Monday. "But hopefully the icebreakers will get in tomorrow." In the video, he looks cold and tired. He tweeted that the outside temperature was just below freezing, and he'd been up waiting to see if the icebreakers could reach them.

After making a 45-mile over-ice trip to Mawson's hut, they set sail due west. On Dec. 24, the Akademik Shokalskiy got slammed by high winds that drove pack ice against the 233-foot ship. A Chinese icebreaker tried to reach them on Saturday but couldn't get through. Then a blizzard Monday stymied an Australian ship. According to video diaries posted on YouTube, the passengers seem to be keeping themselves occupied with books and laptops. Turney told The New York Times that they've also been watching movies. "At first, people were starting to watch disaster movies," he said. "But I had to stop that."

The scientists aboard say their purpose is to learn more about a region that's not much better understood than when Mawson set out to explore it 100 years ago. "In spite of a century of discovery, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean remain a unique place to monitor the health of our planet," they say in their mission statement. "The Australasian Antarctic Expedition — the AAE — will truly meld science and adventure, repeating century old measurements to discover and communicate the changes taking place in this remote and pristine environment."

Despite being stuck, the team has managed to accomplish some of its goals, one of which was to find Mawson's hut. And another of Turney's twitter videos shows two people handling a drill. "The science continues," he wrote. "Drilling ice to observe life below." But their getting stuck interrupted the scientific expedition of the Chinese ship, the Xue Long, which was diverted to help out. (The Chinese have been investing in Antarctic exploration lately.) How quickly the helicopter can come to lift them onto the Xue Long will depend on the weather.

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