A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is sailing to Antarctica to rescue more than 120 crew members still aboard two ships trapped in the frozen continent. That's after the news that 52 scientists and paying passengers trapped aboard one of those vessels — the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy — were on their way home.
The Polar Star, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, left Australia Sunday following requests last week from Australia, China and Russia to assist the trapped vessels — the Akademik Shokalskiy and China's Xue Long, or Snow Dragon.
"The U.S. Coast Guard stands ready to respond to Australia's request," Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commander of Coast Guard Pacific Area, said in a statement. "Our highest priority is safety of life at sea, which is why we are assisting in breaking a navigational path for both of these vessels."
The Polar Star will take approximately seven days to reach Commonwealth Bay, where the ships are stranded, Australia's Maritime Safety Authority said.
As Mark has reported, 52 scientists and paying passengers were ferried last Thursday by helicopter from the stranded Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker nearby. They were told Friday that their voyage to Australia had to be delayed. "The hitch, as Mark wrote, "[was that] the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long — which had assisted in the passengers' rescue, was itself stuck in ice.
"So the Aurora Australis — the ship to which the passengers had been flown — was asked to stay in the area in case its assistance was needed."
But the Xue Long is no longer in distress, and so the Aurora Australis and its passengers are on their way again to an expected mid-January arrival at the Australian state of Tasmania.
Officials said the 101 crew members on the Chinese vessel and 22 on the Russian ship are in no immediate danger.