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Stranded ship awaits Australian ice-breaker in Antarctic

With three ice-breakers failing to reach the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, the crew and passengers of the ice-trapped vessel in the Antarctic are waiting to see if two other ships can free them or whether a helicopter rescue is necessary. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

An Australian rescue vessel trying to reach a ship and its passengers trapped by ice in Antarctica was expected to arrive on Sunday evening local time (early Sunday morning Eastern Time), after early rescue efforts to break the ship free were stymied by thick “multi-layered” ice more than ten-feet deep.

The Australian ship is now the latest hope for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which became trapped in the ice on Christmas Eve while on a scientific expedition.

Previously, those abroad had set their hopes on the Snow Dragon, a Chinese ice-breaking ship and one of the three vessels originally tasked to the search and rescue mission, which had reached the area on Friday. 

But by Saturday morning Snow Dragon’s mission was put on hold because of the extreme conditions as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) confirmed that the ship's progress had been halted.

Expedition leader and University of New South Wales Professor Christopher Turney has taken to social media to document the experience and continued to report that the stranded 74 were in good condition, but "still waiting."

The Shokalskiy was trapped during the Australian Antarctic Expedition, a mission led by Turney  to retrace the footsteps of Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who explored the Antarctic 100 years ago. It left the port of Bluff, New Zealand on Dec. 8 where it is due to return in January.

The Snow Dragon icebreaker came within seven miles of the Shokalskiy, which has been stuck since Christmas Eve, but had to retreat after the ice became too thick, expedition spokesman Alvin Stone told the Associated Press.

Turney told NBC News on Friday the Snow Dragon had encountered "multi-layered ice, two-plus meters thick (6.5 feet)," but with weather conditions now getting worse the ice was now said to be more than ten-feet deep.

“Unfortunately Snow Dragon can't get through,” Turney said in another post on his Twitter page. “It’s standing by & waiting on another vessel to help. Everyone well.”


AMSA confirmed in a statement that the Chinese ship would remain in the area to assist if necessary and that another icebreaker, a French-flagged ship, is no longer involved in the rescue.

The agency also said AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre Australia was “considering all available options.”

NBC's Martin Fletcher reported that a helicopter Snow Dragon had on deck could possibly ferry passengers aboard the ship, but currently the aircraft could not take off because of the snow. 

Turney told NBC News that despite good morale on the ship, conditions had been challenging.

"When we first got stuck in the ice, we could see icebergs on the horizon, and that was disconcerting because you can only see 20 percent of them and they move not just in relation to the wind, but what the current is doing under the water," he said via satellite phone.

AMSA spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher told NBC News on Tuesday: "It is a very remote location so it is not your everyday search-and-rescue mission."

The  Shokalskiy  is 100 nautical miles east of the French Antarctic base Dumont D’Urville. But all those aboard spent Christmas Day and the day after trapped inside the ice-locked ship.

Turney said the ice had enveloped the ship "very, very quickly."

"It's a classic misunderstanding, that this environment moves at glacial pace, and it's quite the reverse," he said.

The 233-foot-long Russian-flagged ship sent out a distress signal, which was picked up at 7:20 a.m. Australian Eastern Daylight Time (3:20 p.m. ET Tuesday) by the Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, in the U.K.

As the ship is in the Australian search-and-rescue region, this message was passed on to AMSA, which alerted the Snow Dragon.