Ringing In The New Year, Trapped By Antarctic Ice
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This is how you celebrate New Year's Eve in Antarctica.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Five, four, three, two, one, happy New Year.
CORNISH: That is, if you are among the 70 passengers and crew of the Akademik Shokalskiy. The scientific research vessel was halfway through a month-long Australian-Antarctic expedition when, on Christmas Day, it made a call for help. It was trapped in packed sea ice so dense that twice icebreakers have tried and failed to get through.
Among those aboard is Alok Jha. He's the science correspondent for The Guardian and he's been chronicling the ordeal daily from the ship. He's speaking to us via satellite phone aboard the ship. Hi there, Alok.
ALOK JHA: Hello, there.
CORNISH: So it's been, I guess, seven days now. Can you tell us where the ship is located and how did it get stuck?
JHA: We got caught in a blizzard on Christmas Eve and there's a load of sea ice that was blown into the Antarctic coast. And we happened to be in the way between the sea ice and the coast, and we got pinned in. It was quite an event because on Christmas Day itself, we were about two nautical miles from the edge of the sea ice. And now, we're about 20 nautical miles from the sea.
CORNISH: So you're saying, at this point, you are 20 nautical miles away from the sea?
JHA: That's right, yes.
CORNISH: And we mentioned rescue attempts. Ice breakers from China and from Australia have tried. And now I understand the plan is for an evacuation by air, by helicopter.
JHA: That's correct. So the Australian icebreaker came here just two days ago, tried a few times, couldn't get through the ice. The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long tried last Friday, didn't get through, either. And so as soon as the weather clears, some helicopters from the Xue Long will land on a landing path on the ice next to our ship. The passengers will go aboard and then the idea is we return to the Xue Long, and from the Xue Long to the Aurora and then onwards toward a local Antarctic base.
CORNISH: So the Xue Long, this Chinese icebreaker is sending helicopters towards you. And I understand that the passengers, you were helping create the helipad for it to land?
JHA: Yeah. New Year's Eve, just in the afternoon, we were told that this was going to happen. So we needed to tramp down the snow. So there's lots of snow (unintelligible) obviously on the ice flows, and the helicopter can't land on something so soft. So, 30-odd people just went outside in a line, penguin-marched across the ice flow and just tramped it down. So we created ourselves a helipad, yeah.
CORNISH: Alok Jha, what is the weather like right now? I mean, what are the conditions there? I think we hear a lot of wind, obviously, in the background.
JHA: Yeah. Well, I'm on top of the ship. It's incredibly windy. It's been windy for the last few days. It's going to get even more windy. Very, very cold, of course, although the last few days it's also been raining, which is an indication of the fact that it's slightly warmer than average for Antarctica here.
CORNISH: Alok, what's life been like on the ship? How are your supplies for, say, food? Obviously, we heard in the tape people were quite cheerful for New Year's. But what's it been like?
JHA: Honestly, the mood, I have to say, has been great. People have been taking all the twists and turns with, as one of my colleagues has called it, an adventurous spirit. I mean everyone onboard here knew what we they getting into when getting on to this expedition. Antarctica is one of these places where you make plans and then you just hope the weather allows you to enact those plans. I mean, it's been disappointing that we've been trapped, but, you know, we just have to sort of take it. And it's much more fun to just take it with a bit of humor rather than dwelling too much on the negative side of things.
I mean, none of us want to be here, let's be honest. We'd much rather get out and go home. But I think if we're here a few months from now, it will be a different story. But right now, the mood has been very, very good. We've been sharing skills. We've been giving lessons and language lessons and singing lessons. In terms of provisions, there's plenty of provisions. (Unintelligible) because you never know what's going to happen. We've got about a week and a half worth of food left. And then, of course, we've got dehydrated food and stuff but I don't think it will come to that.
CORNISH: Alok Jha, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JHA: You're very welcome. Happy New Year, by the way.
CORNISH: Happy New Year. Alok Jha, he's a science correspondent with The Guardian. He spoke to us on board the Akademik Shokalskiy, which is a research vessel that is trapped in the Antarctic.