de la Motte, East Antarctica:
the Xue Long appeared as a dot on the horizon, against a bright blue
sky, to the starboard side of our ice-locked ship just after
dinnertime on Friday evening, local time.
two days of intense blizzards, with biting cold that had forced us to
spend all our time below decks, the break in the weather and the
approaching rescue had put the crew and passengers of the MV Akademik
Shokalskiy in good spirits.
temperatures at a pleasantly bearable -1C, some of the crew went on
to the ice surrounding the ship in all directions and killed time by
making igloos. The rest remained on board and watched the Chinese
icebreaker through binoculars as it appeared to make steady progress,
silently zigzagging through the ice, from the upper deck of the ship.
we waited, penguins, apparently confused by the sudden appearance of
a solid mass caused by the compacting of ice floes around our vessel,
wandered past at regular intervals, looking for the shoreline.
Akademik Shokalskiy awaits the arrival of the Xue Long, in
Antarctica. Photograph: Laurence Topham for the Guardian
we woke after a brief sleep to the sound of disappointment. An
announcement on the ship's noticeboard broke the bad news: after
spending about 12 hours cutting through seven nautical miles of ice,
the Xue Long had turned around and headed back towards open water.
ice was just too thick, and the Xue Long was making very heavy going.
The captain decided the best course of action was to wait for a
second icebreaker or a change in weather," said Chris Fogwill, a
glaciologist at the University of New South Wales and a co-leader of
the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). "We need a westerly
wind to release the pressure on the pack ice in the area, or we need
said the Shokalskiy would definitely get out of the ice, but it would
now be a waiting game to decide the best strategy.
166-metre Chinese ship, whose name means Snow Dragon, will now
regroup with the smaller L'Astrolabe, the French vessel sent from the
nearby Antarctic base, Dumont D'Urville, which is 18.5 nautical miles
from the Shokalskiy. There it will wait for the Australian
icebreaker, Aurora Australis, due to arrive in the area on Saturday.
expedition leader had reassured us earlier that this kind of venture
always allowed for this kind of contingency. It would, he said, be a
couple of weeks before we were reduced to dehydrated food.
had run into trouble two miles from the Antarctic shore and can
clearly see the ice caps. All around us is a flat landscape of ice,
stretching out for 18 nautical miles. The sight is not unlike the
images sent by Curiosity Rover from Mars, only in white.
Russian-controlled Shokalskiy became trapped in heavy ice on Tuesday,
when it was travelling east around Commonwealth Bay to the Mertz
Strong south-easterly winds pushed the ice floes in the area
towards the Antarctic coastline, forming a dense mass around the
Shokalskiy. At the time, the ship was only two miles from the open
water. Since then, two days of blizzards have built the ice pack
around the ship further – and the edge of the ice sheet, and the
open water beyond, is now between 13 and 18 nautical miles from the
a bulbous shape and we're right in the middle of it," said
Fogwill. "The nature of Antarctica is very different to the rest
of the world – everything is at a bigger scale. Storms are ever
present, the rate at which they shift is very unpredictable because
there is so much ocean around. At the edge of the continent you have
strong weather systems and the speed at which things can happen is
astronomical. It's so far outside our normal frame of reference."
Shokalskiy became stuck just over two weeks into its month-long
journey, from Bluff in New Zealand to Commonwealth Bay in East
Antarctica. It is now at the Antarctic continent's Cape de la Motte,
1,500 nautical miles from Hobart in Tasmania. On board are 48
passengers – half of them scientists, the other half paying members
of the public who are assisting in the experiments – and 20 crew
members, following in the footsteps of the great Antarctic explorer
and scientist Douglas Mawson, leader of the original AAE of 1911.
ship has been sailing through the Southern Ocean since 8 December,
repeating and extending many of Mawson's wildlife, ocean and weather
observations in order to build a picture of how this part of the
world has changed in the past 100 years.
crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy venture out on to the ice.
Photograph: Laurence Topham for the Guardian
expedition had already reached the fast ice off Commonwealth Bay,
carrying out measurements of the Southern Ocean along the way. A
small team of scientists and conservationists also reached Mawson's
Huts at Cape Denison on Thursday last week, 40 miles across the ice
from where the ship was anchored.
Xue Long discovered that the ice at the edge of the pack was much
thicker than it expected – around three to four metres thick in
places – and the going was slow. It reported travelling at just
between 0.1 to 3 knots due to the density of the ice it encountered.
Technical issues with its engines meant L'Astrolabe did not enter the
ice field at all. "We know the ice conditions around us are
extremely difficult and the ice is under a lot of pressure,"
said Greg Mortimer, a co-leader of the AAE, aboard the Shokalskiy.
the Xue Long had reached the Shokalskiy, it would have likely cut a
ring in the ice around our ship so that our captain could manoeuvre
it into the newly opened channel behind the Xue Long. "It's
quite an elaborate operation and one that takes some time," said
plan would then have been to sail the Shokalskiy close behind the
Chinese vessel as it carved a new channel through the ice and headed
back to the open waters of the Southern Ocean. That could have taken
more than a day.
the circumstances, the Shokalskiy is now unlikely to reach open water
until Saturday at the earliest.
before the Xue Long had turned around, Janet Rice, the Green party
senator-elect for Victoria, Australia, who has been on board the ship
since it left New Zealand, said: "I understand why people might
be concerned, but the feeling today on board the ship is like a
summer holiday when the weather is bad, when you're stuck inside
reading books and playing Scrabble. We've been assured that we're in
no danger and it's just a matter of waiting."