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Wait Is Over For Antarctic Explorers: They Can Head Home

There's ice as far as the eye can see from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which is stuck in the Antarctic. The captain says he and his crew can wait for conditions to improve.
Zhang Jiansong
Xinhua /Landov
There's ice as far as the eye can see from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which is stuck in the Antarctic. The captain says he and his crew can wait for conditions to improve.

The on-again, off-again trip home for 52 people rescued from a ship stuck in the Antarctic is on again.

Those scientists and paying passengers, who on Thursday were ferried by helicopter from the stranded MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an Australian icebreaker nearby, were told on Friday that their voyage to Australia had to be delayed.

The hitch: 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 there's word via Twitter on Saturday from expedition leader Chris Turney that "the Xue Long no longer in distress. Great news!"

The Xue Long (also known as the Snow Dragon) is not, however, free. According to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, the ship tried and failed to break out of the ice on Saturday.

But, the authority says:

"The Master of Xue Long has confirmed to AMSA that the ship is safe, it is not in distress and does not require assistance at this time. There is no immediate danger to personnel on board the Xue Long. The Xue Long has advised AMSA it has food supplies for several weeks."

It appears, the authority adds, that the captains of the Xue Long and the Akademic Shokalskiy have agreed that their ships can "provide mutual support to each other" until they're both able to break free, hopefully in coming days or weeks. They're said to be several miles apart.

It was a helicopter from the Xue Long that flew the stranded passengers to the Aurora Australis.

So, while two ships remain behind, the Aurora Australis and its passengers are on their way again to an expected mid-January arrival at the Australian state of Tasmania.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which was about halfway into a month-long expedition, got stuck in the ice near Cape de la Motte in East Antarctica on Christmas Eve. The trip was an attempt to retrace the steps of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson, who led the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14.

Update at 4:30 p.m. ET. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Is On The Way:

Saying it is "responding to a Jan. 3rd request from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority," the U.S. Coast Guard said Saturday that it is sending the Polar Star to see if it can help free the two ships still stuck in the ice. The Polar Star "is the U.S. Coast Guard's only active heavy polar ice breaker. The ship is 399 feet in length, its maximum speed is 18 knots, it is able to continuously break six feet of ice at three knots, and able to break 21 feet of ice backing and ramming."

The ship has been on a mission to clear a channel to the McMurdo Station research base. It's now in Sydney and will depart for the Antarctic on Sunday, according to Agence France Presse. It should reach the area where ships are stranded in about seven days.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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