SYDNEY – An Australian icebreaker was on Monday battling against bad weather to reach a ship carrying a scientific expedition stranded off Antarctica, leaving open the possibility of a helicopter evacuation, authorities said.
The Australian Antarctic Division's Aurora Australis was 11 nautical miles from the MV Akademik Shokalskiy which is stuck in an ice field, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said.
"The area is currently experiencing snow showers, resulting in poor visibility," the authority said in a statement.
"The Aurora Australis is travelling slowly due to the conditions to ensure the safety of all on board.
"It is unknown at this time if or when the Aurora Australis will arrive near the Akademik Shokalskiy due to weather and ice conditions."
Australia's rescue coordination centre is in regular contact with the stranded ship which is carrying 74 people – including scientists, tourists and crew – and has been stationary since December 24.
Its passengers, who had been following in the Antarctic footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition, remain safe and well on their well-provisioned vessel, AMSA said.
Three icebreakers including the Aurora Australis were called to help free the Russian vessel, which endured a fierce blizzard that appears to have increased the build-up of the surrounding ice.
But an attempt by one of these, a Chinese-flagged vessel, was unable to break through the ice and had to retreat while the third vessel was released from the rescue, concentrating hopes on the Australian icebreaker.
"If the Aurora Australis is unable to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy, it is likely the helicopter on board the Chinese flagged vessel that remains in the area will be tasked to evacuate the passengers," AMSA said on Monday.
Australian authorities took over the search and rescue operation on Christmas Day after Britain's Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre received a distress message via satellite from the Akademik Shokalskiy.
"Obviously we want everyone to be safe, so we're just playing it by ear and leaving it up to the master to progress as he sees fit," AMSA spokeswoman Lisa Martin told the broadcaster ABC.
"It will be several hours before the Aurora gets there, if it is capable. And then if it can't then we'll be looking at using the helicopter on the Chinese vessel once weather conditions are appropriate.
"We're just waiting to see how those weather conditions develop and see if there will be any possibility to bring a helicopter in if needed."
Chris Turney, one of the leaders of the scientific expedition, said there had been high winds early on Monday, meaning communications had been limited.
"Set up tent on top deck. All well. Aurora making good progress. Waiting game," he tweeted.
Turney had earlier tweeted that cracks were developing in the ice around the bow of the ship, something he hoped would help free the vessel.
The team onboard has been carrying out the same scientific experiments Mawson's group conducted during the 1911-1914 expedition in the hope they could help in climate change research.
Several members of the team have already battled sea ice to reach the historic Mawson's Huts – built and occupied by the 1911-1914 expedition – which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg.AFP