Worsening weather conditions have forced an Australian icebreaker on its way to aid a Russian research ship trapped in the Antarctic to turn back, rescuers have reported.
Seventy-four people are on board the Academic Shokalskiy, which became trapped in thick ice in the east Antarctic on Christmas Day and has remained there since.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is co-ordinating a major rescue operation, but so far rescue efforts have been dashed by ice and severe weather.
The Australian vessel, the Aurora Australis, had been expected to arrive at around 1pm GMT on Sunday, but was forced to turn back when it was only 10 nautical miles from the Shokalskiy.
“The weather condition is not safe for it to proceed, and it’s gone back to open water”, AMSA spokeswoman Lisa Martin told Reuters.
Captain Murray Doyle told journalists, “The ice became too thick for us to penetrate. There was just nowhere for us to go.”
A Chinese icebreaker named Snow Dragon made an attempt to reach the ship last week, but was also forced to return to open waters. Snow Dragon came so close to the Shokalskiy that one of the stranded crewmembers tweeted a picture of the rescue ship on the horizon.
The scientists, tourists and crewmembers aboard the Shokalskiy had been told that if these efforts failed, then rescuers might resort to attempting an evacuation by air. However, such plans have also been thwarted by heavy snowfall.
“We can’t fly a helicopter in these conditions either. There is essentially nothing we can do at this point of time”, Martin said.
When asked whether the passengers would have to see in the new year on board the ship, she said, “It certainly looks like they will be there tomorrow.”
The Russian ship first departed from New Zealand on November 28 on an expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by legendary explorer Douglas Mawson.
Despite their situation, the mood on board the vessel has reportedly stayed calm. Over the weekend, passengers were allowed to stretch their legs on the ice, with some taking scientific samples while others built igloos.