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The latest attempt to rescue a Russian research vessel trapped in Antarctica was scuttled Monday morning because the ice around the stranded ship turned out to be too thick to break up.
The passengers and crew of the Akedemic Shokalskiy had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, which got within just a few miles of the Russian vessel. The stranded ship is carrying a team of scientists and about 20 tourists as well as its crew.
The research team’s leader, Chris Turney, spoke to guest TODAY anchor Jane Pauley via Skype Monday.
“We’ve had a roller coaster of a day,” said Turney, leader of the Australian Antarctic expedition retracing the historic journey of Sir Douglas Mawson, who explored the Eastern side of Antarctica a century ago. “We were hoping we’d be on the way out, but unfortunately the latest effort by the Australian icebreaker Aurora didn’t manage to get through to us.”
The Aurora was the second icebreaker to try to cut a path to the Russian ship. The Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon came within seven nautical miles of the Shokalskiy before having to turn back on Saturday. “That was really close,” Turney said. “We had the team celebrating. We thought we were out.”
Though still trapped, the team isn’t that worried yet. They have plenty of food and provisions.
“You go into this hunker-down mentality,” Tracy Rogers, a research team member, told TODAY via Skype. “You drink a lot of gin-and-tonics. You hit the books. You use the time as productively as you can.”
Turney explained how the Shokalskiy got trapped even though it’s summer in Antarctica.
“This is quite exceptional,” Turney told Pauley. “What appears to have happened is, there was a massive blowout of old ice. The ice was more than 10 years old and it’s very thick. It got released on the edge of the continent, so it’s remobilized. Then we got caught in very heavy southeast winds, and the result is we got packed in between the continent and this heavy ice.”
Pauley asked Turney if he thought they would have to hike out of their predicament like the team of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, whose ship became trapped and then crushed by the polar ice about 100 years ago.
“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” Turney said, adding that the crew and research team were all familiar with the Shackleton story.
Another option would be evacuating the crew and passengers from the Shokalskiy to the Aurora Australis via helicopter. But bad weather has thus far blocked that option.
“The big thing is the weather,” Turney said. “There’s low visibility right now.”
There are still other possibilties.
“We’ve got word that the American icebreaker, a beautiful vessel called the Polar Star, is near,” Turney said. “If that were to come, it would definitely get us out. There's a variety of options. We're just keeping hope."