Rescue of Russian boat stuck in Antarctic ice delayed as Chinese icebreaker forced to turn back

The Chinese vessel has been forced to retreat after a failed attempt to reach the ship. A French vessel has already launched an abandoned rescue attempt

A Chinese icebreaker trying to rescue a Russian ship trapped in Antarctica has been stopped in its tracks and forced to retreat within sight of the stricken vessel as the ice is too thick.

“Since the thick ice exceeds the ship's icebreaking capabilities and an upcoming cyclone will exacerbate icy conditions, we have to temporarily stall the ship,” Snow Dragon captain Wang Jianzhong told the Xinhua news agency.

The Chinese Snow Dragon had been sent to free the Akademik Shokalskiy on Christmas Day after it became trapped when whipping winds from a blizzard it was caught in pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place.

An Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis, is now en route to help. The Snow Dragon will remain on standby until the Australian vessel, which is said to have a better chance of breaking through, reaches the trapped ship. It is expected to arrive on Sunday evening.

MV Akademik Shokalskiy left New Zealand on November 28 on a privately funded expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.

The ship's 74 passengers include scientists and tourists, many of them Australian, and 22 Russian crew members.

The Snow Dragon has a helicopter on board that can be used to rescue passengers if the Aurora Australis can not break through the ice. The ship isn’t in danger of sinking, and there are weeks' worth of supplies on board.

A third icebreaker, the French L'Astrolabe had made it to the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship on Saturday, but was also forced to call off the rescue attempt after failing to break through the ice.

The Russian embassy in Australia has been in constant contact with the captain and said everyone on board was in good health and there was “no threat to their lives or safety”.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research and those on board also managed to enjoy the Christmas festivities with a roast dinner and a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, Chris Turney, an Australian professor who helped organise the voyage, said.

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