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December 28, 2013

Rescue of icebound Antarctic ship faces setback

SYDNEY — A Chinese icebreaker that was en route to rescue a ship trapped in Antarctic ice was forced to turn back after being unable to push its way through the heavy sea ice.

The Snow Dragon icebreaker came within 7 miles of the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been stuck since Christmas Eve, but had to retreat after the ice became too thick, said expedition spokesman Alvin Stone.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been on a research expedition to Antarctica, got stuck Tuesday after a blizzard’s whipping winds pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place. The ship wasn’t in danger of sinking, and there are weeks worth of supplies for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, but the vessel cannot move.

Three icebreakers, including the Snow Dragon, have been trying to reach the ship since Wednesday. France’s L’Astrolabe has also made it to the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship, but will wait there with the Snow Dragon for the arrival of Australia’s Aurora Australis, which has the best chance of breaking through the thick ice, Stone said. The Australian vessel is not expected to reach the area until tomorrow.

“I think we’re probably looking at another 24 hours of twiddling our fingers and waiting for something to happen,” Stone said.

The scientific team on board the research ship — which left New Zealand on Nov. 28 — had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s century-old voyage to Antarctica when it became trapped. They plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, expedition leader Chris Turney said.

Passengers and crew initially had to contend with blizzard conditions, including winds up to 40 mph, but the weather has calmed considerably since then, Turney said.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life. Those on board also managed to celebrate the holiday with a traditional Christmas feast and a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, which helped keep everyone’s spirits high, Turney said.

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