A Chinese icebreaker has failed to reach a scientific expedition vessel trapped off Antarctica, stalling the rescue mission after it was unable to break through thick ice, Australian maritime authorities said Saturday.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), which is coordinating the rescue of the Russian passenger ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, said the icebreaker came within six-and-a-half nautical miles of the ship but had to stop.
"The Chinese vessel unfortunately encountered some heavy ice that it's not capable of breaking through," AMSA spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher told AFP.
"So unfortunately it won't be able to continue through to the Akademik Shokalskiy. It's making its way back."
"The rescue. . .unfortunately has stalled."
The Russian ship, with 74 people on board, has been trapped in ice about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D'Urville since Tuesday.
Three vessels with icebreaking capability, including Australia's Antarctic resupply ship Aurora Australis, have headed to the area to attempt to rescue the vessel.
It is not yet clear whether the Aurora Australis, which has the highest icebreaking rating of the three and is not due in the area until Sunday, will be able to go any further than the Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon.
AMSA said other options would be discussed Saturday, including whether authorities could use a helicopter onboard the Snow Dragon to bring the passengers to safety during the current favourable weather.
The ship is carrying scientists and tourists who are following the Antarctic path of explorer Sir Douglas Mawson a century ago.
They have been carrying out the same scientific experiments his team conducted during the 1911-1914 Australian Antarctic Expedition – the first large-scale Australian-led scientific expedition to the frozen continent.
Several members of the team have already battled sea ice to reach the historic Mawson's Huts – built and occupied by the 1911-1914 expedition – which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg.
The group became stuck when unexpected weather forced their ship into heavy ice and since becoming stranded have sat through an intense blizzard which appears to have increased the build up of ice around them.
One of the scientists onboard, Chris Turney, said the team had been attempting to update the scientific records made by Mawson's group a century ago – records which he said have become crucial in charting signs of global warming.
They had planned to return to New Zealand by early January. — Agence France-Presse