SYDNEY (AFP) - Passengers on a Russian research ship trapped in thick Antarctic ice faced an uncertain wait on Sunday for one last icebreaking attempt with no guarantees of success.
The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been marooned by heavy ice since Tuesday about 100 nautical miles east of the French Antarctic base Dumont d'Urville, with two icebreaking ships so far failing in attempts to reach it.
China's Snow Dragon came tantalisingly close on Saturday, getting to within six-and-a-half nautical miles of the passenger vessel carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew before impenetrable ice forced it to turn back.
The Australian government's resupply ship Aurora Australis is now en route to make one final bid to free the icebound boat and is expected to reach the Akademik at 11pm Australian time (8pm Singapore time).
"It will then assess if it can make it through the ice to the Akademik Shokalskiy," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority told AFP.
"If the Aurora Australis is not capable of getting through the ice, then we will look at utilising the helicopter on board the Chinese-flagged vessel (the Snow Dragon) which AMSA's Rescue Coordination Centre has tasked to remain in the vicinity." The Aurora Australis has the highest icebreaking rate of the three vessels initially sent to the Akademik's rescue, which also included France's L'Astrolabe, but there is no guarantee it will be able to reach the Russian ship.
The Australian icebreaker can cut ice up to 1.6 metres thick but the Akademik is estimated to be surrounded by ice of about three metres.
Aurora Australis captain Murray Doyle said Saturday that his vessel was not built to tackle ice thicker than three metres, likening it to driving a car into a brick wall.
Expedition co-leader Greg Mortimer said contingency plans had been made if the Australian vessel couldn't reach them "in the next few days" to evacuate the Akademik, using the Snow Dragon's helicopter to ferry passengers off the ice to other ships to return home "via the Ross Sea or (Australia's) Casey (Antarctic) base." The call to abandon icebreaking efforts in favour of an air rescue would be made by the ships' captains, particularly Doyle, he added.
"We'll know I guess within 12 hours of the arrival of the Aurora Australis how that's going to unfold, because if they arrive and the conditions are looking like the winds are going to be in our favour we've got a lot more on our side," Mortimer told The Guardian.
He said the passengers would get off the ship but "what form that takes I don't know".
Despite the uncertainty of their plight the ship's passengers were reported to be in good spirits, with expedition co-leader Chris Turney and Guardian correspondent Alok Jha posting a jovial video online from the snowy deck.
"We're still here, stuck at Cape de la Motte. Any passing ships do pay us a visit!" joked a fur-hatted Jha.
"Brilliant!" added Turney.
The group, which includes Australians, Britons and New Zealanders, became stuck when unexpected weather forced their ship into heavy ice. An intense blizzard appears to have increased the buildup of ice around them.
They have been on board for three weeks and had intended to return to New Zealand by early January.