After the first decent night’s sleep in a fortnight, the team are starting to familarise themselves with their new home, on board the Australian icebreaker Aurora australis, a remarkable red giant that stands proud in the heavy pack ice. It has been an intense last 24 hours. Yesterday we woke to brilliant sunshine and calm on the Akademik Shokalskiy with no immediate news of evacuation. Indeed, we even had the Inaugural Mertz Writer’s Festival on the ice, in anticipation of another day locked in. But by 1800, we were in evacuation mode. The Russian crew opted to remain with their vessel until either conditions improve or they are broken out by another vessel capable of reaching them. Captain Igor and his crew were completely unflappable and provided a wonderfully calming influence for everyone else. By midnight we were all safely on board the Aurora thanks to some impressive helicopter sorties by the Chinese from their icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon); round trips between the Shokalskiy and the Aurora were completed in just 25 minutes. Team members, luggage, science gear and samples from the expedition were transported with good grace, humour and professionalism, whilst also bringing food supplies back for the Russians (we only had five day’s supply left). Everyone spoke admiringly of how the operation went during and after the evacuation. The Xue Long is now itself working in heavy ice but we hope the Chinese team will also get out soon.
The AAE team have been fantastic. Everyone held together to the end, supporting one another and keeping good humour under very trying conditions. The following can only be a short summary of an incredible team effort. Chris and Greg worked all hours sorting logistics and co-ordinating with the Bridge; the ship’s manager Nikki did not seem to sleep, maintaining a daily program of activities for everyone; Brad and Nikki – the ships cooks – served amazing meals on a decreasing amount of supplies; the two Bens helped keep everyone busy with activities while doing essential work around the ship; and Colin and Kerry Lee helped with Chinese translation on the Bridge. Our impressive media team in Alok, Lawrence and Andrew from The Guardian and BBC helped keep our families and friends (and the world) assured we were well while also reporting on the science; not always an easy task given the conditions! Everyone else on the AAE looked after one another, providing leadership when needed, continuing the science work when possible, giving talks, providing lessons in all manner of skills, and being available for a quiet chat at almost any hour. We were very fortunate to have such a remarkable group of people on the AAE.
On board the wonderful Aurora, we were greeted by friendly voices and faces of friends and colleagues. Everyone is well and in good humour – albeit a little relieved. The helicopter voyage over some 14 nautical miles of jagged, broken sea ice just reaffirmed to the team how massive the ice breakout must have been that trapped us. I met the brilliant Captain (‘Master’) Murray Doyle of the Aurora and personally thanked him for the tremendous effort he and his team undertook to extricate us. The mission with the Chinese went ahead seamlessly and is a testament to the professionalism of all those involved. Murray reiterated that vessels always look out for one another in the Antarctic; ‘It’s part of the programme of people working down here. We have to rely on each other if something goes wrong. You’re too far away from anything else, it’s only the people here you can really rely on’. I was greatly relieved to hear from Murray that the disruption to the vessel schedule is likely to be limited. We are now heading west to the Australian base Casey, finish the resupply there and then return to Hobart. If all goes to plan, the Aurora will depart Tasmania for its fourth voyage of the season on schedule.
Now for some sleep!