Antarctic expeditioners rescued from flagship Australian icebreaker that ran aground

A handout photo taken by Chris Hill and provided by Australian Antarctic Division on Feb 26, 2016, shows Aurora Australis after it ran aground in Antarctica.
A handout photo taken by Chris Hill and provided by Australian Antarctic Division on Feb 26, 2016, shows Aurora Australis after it ran aground in Antarctica. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (AFP) - Expeditioners stranded on Australia's flagship icebreaker, which ran aground in Antarctica, were on Friday (Feb 26) rescued by barge, ahead of attempts to refloat the ship.

The Aurora Australis has been stuck since breaking its mooring and being swept onto rocks Wednesday during a raging blizzard while on a resupply mission to Australia's Mawson Station.

"Expeditioners on board the Aurora Australis have been successfully transferred by barge to Mawson station," the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) said in a statement late on Friday.

The AAD said the barge made three trips to extract the expeditioners who were now at Mawson station. Of the 68 people onboard, 37 were expeditioners.

The crew have remained on the ship and will attempt to move it off the rocks at West Arm in Horseshoe Harbour using the ship's ballast system and work boats.

The icebreaker's hull has been damaged but only "in a space that is usually flooded with ballast water" and there has been no fuel spill.

"This breach continues to pose no risk to the stability of the vessel or of fuel leaking into the environment," said the division.

The ship's owners, P&O Maritime Services, said that once the Aurora Australis was successfully refloated, it would be taken out of Horseshoe Harbour to a sheltered area close by for a fuller assessment of any damage, which would take three days.

The Aurora's grounding means it will not be able to pick up 30 people waiting for it at another Australian research base, Davis, who were due to join the ship for the voyage back to Australia.

Instead, the US Antarctic programme will fly in a LC130 aircraft on Saturday to get them to Australia's Casey Station, where another plane will land in the coming days to transport them out.

The AAD said it was consulting with other national Antarctic programmes to ship the expeditioners on Mawson back to Australia.

A Chinese Antarctic ship, Xiao Long, recently left Casey and is reportedly within a few days of Mawson.

Australia has four stations in the Antarctic wilderness and Aurora Australis routinely travels from the Australian city of Hobart on scientific and resupply voyages.

It left Hobart on Jan 11 on the latest mission, undertaking marine science work around the Kerguelen Plateau region before arriving at Mawson last Saturday.

The ageing vessel has been battling the stormy Southern Ocean since 1989 and is scheduled to be replaced in 2019 by a new custom-built ship that will be faster, bigger and offer increased endurance.

Several countries have territorial claims on Antarctica, viewed as a potential future source of huge mineral resources, although under a 1949 agreement the frozen continent is designated a scientific preserve.