CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — An Australian icebreaker carrying 52 passengers who were retrieved from an icebound ship in the Antarctic resumed its journey home on Saturday, leaving behind another two icebreakers trapped in pack ice.
The Aurora Australis will continue its interrupted resupply mission to Australia's Antarctic base Casey Station before returning to the Australian island state of Tasmania in mid-January with the rescued scientists, journalists and tourists.
It had been slowly cracking through thick ice toward open water after a Chinese ship's helicopter on Thursday plucked the passengers from their stranded Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy and carried them to an ice floe near the Australian ship. But on Friday afternoon, the crew of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, that had provided the helicopter said they were worried about their own ship's ability to move through the ice.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Coordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue, told the Aurora to stay in the area in case help was needed. Under international conventions observed by most countries, ships' crews are obliged to take part in such rescues and the owners carry the costs.
The U.S. Coast Guard said Saturday that one of its cutters, the Polar Star, is responding to a Jan. 3 request from Australia, Russia and China to assist the two trapped ships. The Polar Star was cutting short its planned stop in Sydney, Australia, to assist the Russian and Chinese ships because they may not be able to free themselves from the ice.
"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." Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander, said in a statement released by the Coast Guard after passengers had been successfully evacuated from the Russian ship. "We are always ready and duty bound to render assistance in one of the most remote and harsh environments on the face of the globe."
The Polar Star left its homeport of Seattle in early December to take part in one of its main missions, Operation Deep Freeze, to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program's McMurdo Station on Ross Island. The Polar Star is the U.S. Coast Guard's only active heavy polar ice breaker.
On Saturday, AMSA said the Aurora was allowed to continue and that the Chinese ship was safe assistance.