NEW: Rescue efforts are at a frozen standstill just like stranded ship
Chinese icebreaker expected to arrive first but has been stopped by ice and storm
The stranded research vessel is carrying tourists and scientists studying climate change
The 74 people aboard had a "great Christmas" while at a frozen standstill, leader says
South Pole weather has stymied a rescue by a Chinese icebreaker trying to reach an expedition vessel trapped for the past four days in frozen seas, a ship officer told CNN Friday.
The icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, was just six nautical miles away from the Russian-flagged vessel when the captain decided the ship could not get any closer, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said Saturday.
The Chinese crew is hoping a French icebreaker 14 nautical miles away will arrive and offer relief, said Zhu Li, chief officer of the Chinese ship.
But it’s likely the French vessel Astrolabe will also be slowed by the polar cap’s extreme frigidity, Zhu said.
Those two icebreakers – plus a third, from Australia – were battling the planet’s coldest environment in trying to reach the stranded Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, whose 74 researchers, crew and tourists remained in good condition despite being at a frozen standstill since Monday.
It all shows that some lands – especially the ends of the Earth – will never be tamed.
The Snow Dragon is in near-constant communication with the Russian exploration vessel and has ample supplies of water, food and medicine – even a helicopter – if the ice-bound Shokalskiy needed them, Zhu said.
The Russian expedition ship is carrying scientists and passengers led by an Australian climate change professor, but they all may have to wait two more days for one or all three icebreakers to free it, said Capt. Wang Jiangzhong of the Snow Dragon.
“Right now we are waiting for winds to blow ice away so we can move closer,” Wang told CNN. “The current ice condition is exceeding our capabilities to break through further.”
The captain also acknowledged his ship may need help from the other icebreakers headed to the area if conditions deteriorate.
“We are in continual communication with the (stranded) ship,” he said in a satellite phone call with CNN. “I think it’s at least a form of emotional relief for them to know we are nearby to help. We know that they (passengers) are all doing well on that ship.”
The Aurora Australis out of Australia is two days from the Russian ship, its captain, Murray Doyle, told CNN on Friday.
China’s State Oceanic Administration said the Xue Long sailed through an intense cyclone to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy sooner.
Spirits were high Saturday aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy.
“The vessel is fine, it’s safe and everyone on board is very well,” expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at University of New South Wales in Australia told CNN. “Morale is really high.”
The ship got stuck in the ice on Monday night – 15 days after setting out on the second leg of its research trip.
According to Turney, the ship was surrounded by ice up to nearly 10 feet (3 meters) thick. It was about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D’Urville, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.
On Christmas morning, the ship sent a satellite distress signal after conditions failed to clear.
The crew had a “great Christmas” despite their situation, Turney told CNN. He said crew members have used the delay to get more work done.
“We’ve just kept the team busy,” he said.
The expedition is trying to update scientific measurements taken by an Australian expedition led by Douglas Mawson that set out in 1911.
The expedition to gauge the effects of climate change on the region began November 27. The second, and current leg of the trip, started December 8 and was scheduled to conclude with a return to New Zealand on January 4.
Turney said the ship should still be back in New Zealand on time.
CNN’s CY Xu, April Ma and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.