Scientists taking part in the 2013-2014 Australasian Antarctic Expedition have issued a distress call after their ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, became trapped in heavy Antarctic ice. The crew is retracing the footsteps taken by Sir Douglas Mawson in 1911 — a journey that nearly ended in disaster.
The captain issued the distress call to the Maritime Service Authority based in Falsmouth in the UK early on Christmas morning. Three nearby icebreaker ships have been notified and are on their way to help.
The Guardian, which has a reporter on board, writes:
The nearest ship, the Chinese Xue Long (Snow Dragon), will take just over a day to reach the Shokalskiy's position, around 1,500 nautical miles from Hobart in Tasmania. A French ship called the Astrolabe, and sent out from the nearest Antarctic base, Dumont D'Urville, could arrive around the same time. The furthest ship, also on its way, is the Australian icebreaker, Aurora Australis.
"The ship is no danger," said Chris Turney. "We're currently in heavy ice and we need help to get out. It's frustrating – we're only two miles from open water. Everyone is well on board and morale is high. We've had a fantastic Christmas and the science programme has been continuing while we're stuck in position. The results looking really exciting. We're very fortunate the Chinese are in the area, passing relatively close by."
The Snow Dragon is a 166-metre-long icebreaker, cruising towards the Shokalskiy at 14.5 knots.
This story is continuing to unfold, and there's good coverage at the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Russian-built Shokalskiy is currently occupied by 48 passengers (consisting of both scientists and tourists) and 20 crew members. They're currently taking part in the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911 led by Sir Douglas Mawson. The adventurer spent more than two years on the frozen continent — an entire year longer than planned.
You can read an excellent account of Mawson's journey here, but here's a taste:
The team was travelling in single file across a field that they knew had a lot of crevasses. Mertz was at the front, followed by Mawson, then Ninnis. Most of their food supplies were on the final sledge, which was drawn by the best dogs. The thinking was that if a sledge fell down a crevasse at the front, their vital supplies would remain safe.
Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Ninnis's sledge disappeared into a crevasse the others had already walked over. The survivors were left with one and a half weeks' worth of food, but were 500km from the coast. "They were in a lot of trouble," says Turney. "They decided to return, with a real sense that they might not survive."
Running out of food, Mertz and Mawson began eating the dogs, unaware that they were poisoning themselves. "They didn't realise that dogs' livers contained toxic levels of vitamin A, so their hair started falling out. They complained of enormous exhaustion," says Turney.
"The soles of Mawson's feet fell off. He had to strap them on with lanolin every morning. Mertz suffered more than Mawson and, sadly, had a fit of insanity and bit off the tip of his finger and eventually died." But, says Turney, noting his predecessor's stoicism: "In spite of all these things, [Mawson] was still making weather observations."
Image: Laurence Topham
Related: Color pics of Antarctica, 1915.