Akademik Shokalskiy Antarctica Rescue Musings

Posted on Dec 31, 2013 | Comments Off on Akademik Shokalskiy Antarctica Rescue Musings

Akademik Shokalskiy

SMH Photo: Andrew Peacock/www.footloosefoto

Ice-cave-antartica-herbert-ponting-main

 Herbert Ponting – the Terra Nova

Antarctic rescue musings by David McGonigal

No I’m not stuck in the ice

Thanks for all the queries but fortunately I’m not stuck near Antarctica’s Commonwealth Bay on board the Akademik Shokalskiy, awaiting rescue or evacuation. Rather I’m sweltering in Sydney on New Year’s Eve. In my 100+ voyages to the Antarctic I’ve yet to be on a ship beset in ice (touching wood as I type). However, I’ve assisted in rescues and experienced much that the Southern Ocean can throw at you. So, since the Shokalskiy became stuck, I’ve been following the saga with great interest and here are a few observations. These are based on no more than the news reports everyone else has been seeing, too.

A summer of setbacks for Antarctic Science

Today (the morning of Tuesday 31 December) it looks like the decision has been made to take passengers and staff off the ship (by Chinese helicopter from the ice to the Aurora Australis), leaving just the Russian crew. That will take the drama out of the situation and allow the Chinese and Australian vessels to return to their resupply work for the summer science program  that runs on a very tight timetable during the short polar summer. This year looks set to be a setback for ongoing Antarctic science programs – by far the the biggest being that the US budget dispute was not resolved in time to allow US programs to run this summer and, more relevant for Australian science, my understanding is that the Aurora Australis left for the rescue attempt halfway through resupplying Casey Base.

Once there is just the 20 or so crew left on the Shokalskiy they simply wait until they can get free. That won’t be a problem for the crew – the ship normally carries months of extra provisions and Russian polar ships’ crews have done extended research in the past where they only returned home after more than a year at sea. The ship is their real home and I’ve worked with some who have been on the ship since it was built more than 20 years ago.

“Like an almond in toffee”

The Shokalskiy was built to ice-strengthened Russian specs in Finland in 1982. It’s Shuleykin-class so it’s quite small (1753 GRT) and sturdy. However, it’s getting quite old and several of the others in this class have been withdrawn from working in Antarctica. Ideally, the wind will change and the ice will scatter and the ship can escape. Or it will spend a while “like an almond in toffee” as one of Shackleton’s men put it. From what we hear, I don’t have much fear for its safety. The two main risks are that the ice will push it towards land or shoals or that an iceberg could collide with it. The sea ice that the ship is stuck in is moved mainly by the wind; icebergs, on the other hand, with their deep ‘keels’ are moved by ocean currents and sometime a large iceberg looks like an icebreaker plowing through sea ice.

I hope everyone has been impressed by the way the Chinese, French and Australian vessels rushed to the rescue?  That’s the seafarers’ code – to always aid a stricken vessel when it calls for assistance. However, once the people (and ship) are safe there’s the matter of who pays? This operation will have already directly cost millions of dollars (and many more in curtailed programs) so there will be a hefty bill. I’ve known rescuers to bill at exorbitant full commercial rates. Hopefully, insurance will cover it.

Down the line deeper questions will be asked. How and why did the ship get stuck? I have no idea but I bet there are rumours soon enough – and they will only be dispelled after a lengthy enquiry, if there is one.

Science, safety and tourism

For me, once the passengers, crew and ship are safe, the most worrying ramification will be the impact this has on Antarctic tourism. Antarctica is a continent run by the nations of the Antarctic Treaty “for peace and science”. There is provision for tourism and generally that operates in a safe and responsible way. Even so, many scientists regard tourism as a diversion and an unnecessary risk and some would like to see it limited or stopped. This incident will add to that pressure. Never mind that tourist ships often help scientific research programs and research bases, just as the science ships are helping a tourist ship right now. Antarctic tourists soon become and Antarctic advocates with an important role to play in promoting its preservation. The outcome of the next Antarctic Treaty meeting may be crucial to those of us who love Antarctica and love the opportunity to show it to travellers with a passion for the last great wilderness.

 

David McGonigal is an expedition leader in Antarctica who has visited it on more than 100 occasions. He heads back at the end of January 2014. He, with co-author Dr Lynn Woodworth, is the author of “Antarctica – the Complete Story”, “The Blue Continent” and “Antarctica – Secrets of the Southern Continent”.

%d bloggers like this: