Polar Star to aid icebound Antarctic ships

SEATTLE - Concerns over whether two ships will be able to free themselves from surrounding ice has prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to answer Australian, Russian, and Chinese requests for aid.

The Coast Guard plans to dispatch Seattle-based Polar Star to help provide assistance to the Russian-Flagged Akademik Shokalskiy and Chinese-Flagged Xue Long by creating navigable paths for the vessels to pass through.

"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. We are pleased to learn the passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy have been transported safely off the vessel. 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," said Vice Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, Coast Guard Pacific Area Commander.

The Akademik Shokalskiy left New Zealand on Nov. 28. It got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 2,700 kilometers (1,700 miles) south of Hobart, Tasmania. The scientific team on board had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica.

Three icebreakers have already been dispatched to try and crack their way through the ice surrounding the Akademik Shokalskiy, but all failed. The Aurora came within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the ship Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.

A helicopter had previously rescued 52 passengers - scientists and tourists - from the Akademik Shokalskiy on Jan. 2, leaving 22 crew members who stayed because the ship is not in danger of sinking. There are weeks' worth of supplies on board, and the crew planned to wait until the ice that surrounds the ship broke.

China has an interest in Antarctica, with the growing scientific power recently beginning construction on its fourth Antarctic research base. Beijing was criticized for providing modest aid to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in November, and was accused of letting politics influence its response.

The Polar Star left Seattle in December on Operation Deep Freeze, one of its primary missions. The ship's mission is to break a channel through the sea ice of McMurdo Sound to resupply and refuel the U.S. Antarctic Program's (USAP) McMurdo Station on Ross Island.

The Polar Star will finish its primary mission after providing assistance to the Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long.