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Antarctic Ship Rescue

June-December 2002

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In June 2002 the 21,000 tdw Magdalena Oldendorff, chartered by Russia, was returning from the Novolazarevskaya research base on Antarctica, when thick ice blocked its route. The ship is believed to have stayed late in the season in order for the ice to harden enough to allow the unloading of heavy machinery. She had supplied several research stations with food and equipment on behalf of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) in Russia. The vessel apparently drifted 350 km (218 miles) to the West in the ice floes, before calling for assistance. There was voluntary food rationing for a time. All ships normally leave Antarctica by April at the latest.

The Magdalena Oldendorff overwintered in the Bay of Muskegbukta. From 11 June to 20 July 2002 the ship at was located at 69 degrees, 56 minutes South and 1 degree 23 minutes West of the Greenwich meridian - in Muskegbukta Bay, and in late July she returned to this position for the rest of the winter, until early December. See the location on the satellite image. Captain Ivan Dikiy, 15 crew members, and one Argentine doctor were on board the German ship. In December 2002 the made her own way through the Antarctic summer ice and returned to Capetown.

The Liberian-registered ship is owned by Oldendorff Carriers, based in Germany. Until 1 July it was carrying 79 Russian scientists plus a crew of 28 (from Germany, India, the Philippines and Moldova) and was on its way back to Cape Town, South Africa. There are approximately 37 scientific research bases in Antarctica operating each winter. Four of these, (the Russian, Indian, South African and German bases), are in radio communications with the Magdalena Oldendorff.

At almost exactly the same location, on 21 January 1820, the Russian admiral Thaddeus von Bellingshausen [1778-1852] sighted an icefield from 69°25'S and 1°11'W "which seemed to be covered with small hillocks". Without knowing it, Bellingshausen had made the first sighting of the continent of Antarctica. Later the same year, Nathaniel Brown Palmer, and Edward Bransfield, also claimed to have seen the continent.

It is just over 100 years since the first ship survived an Antarctic winter - the Belgica - which became trapped in the ice in 1898.

The Operation to Rescue the Passengers and Crew

Antarctica 69°41'S, 19 July 2002

The Argentine icebreaker Almirante Irizar left Puerto Galván (Bahía Blanca), Argentina, on 28 June, and arrived alongside the German ship on 19 July. For 10 days, both vessels attempted to break through the ice but the attempt failed, as ice conditions were too heavy - despite the use of helicopters to find leads. [A "lead" is a navigable passage through floating ice].

The Almirante Irizar had two Sea King helicopters from the Second Naval Air Helicopter Squadron, and 175 crew on board (including 6 pilots and 22 mechanics for the Sea King helicopters, a surgeon, an anaesthatist, a dentist, a biochemist, 6 members of the Army Ice Patrol, divers trained for Antarctic waters, a journalist, a representative of Oldendorff Carriers, and 5 scientists).

In addition, the Swedish icebreaker Oden left the Baltic Sea on 28 June and was expected to reach Antarctic waters five weeks later. The German ship's owners had requested that the Oden join the rescue operation in case the Argentinian boat failed to cut a path out through the ice. On 28 July the Oden was ordered to turn round and return home to Luleĺ.

On 16 June, the South African ship Agulhas left Cape Town, carrying two South African Air Force 22 Squadron Oryx M2 helicopters. The ship is owned by South Africa's Department of Environment and Tourism, and operated by SMIT Marine. It has a reinforced hull but cannot break a path through thick pack ice. Having rescued 90 scientists and crew (see below) from the Magdalena Oldendorff, she has now returned to Cape Town.

At this location in July there are only 4 hours of daylight so some ship movements are usually done in twilight. Minimum temperatures were minus 50 degrees Celsius, with regular ice storms. The lowest temperatures in this region are usually in August, with maximum sea ice extent in September.

The Almirante Irizar made her way out of the pack ice and returned to her base in Buenos Aires. (On 12 August her position was here).

On 1 July ten Russian researchers plus eight crew members were airlifted by helicopter to the Agulhas. Weather conditions allowed the Agulhas to moved South to a distance of around 200 nautical miles from the Magdalena Oldendorff, using ice leads 20 to 50 m wide. The air temperature on 1 July at this location was minus 23.1 degrees Celsius, with a 15 knot wind.

On 27 June, two helicopters flew from the Agulhas, using a window of slightly less-cold weather (the temperature had risen 10 degrees to minus 15 degrees Celsius) and airlifted 21 scientists. This first flight also carried yeast and flour, cigarettes, coffee and sugar. On 28 June a further 48 Russian scientists were taken off. The helicopters dropped a total of 1.5 tonnes of food and supplies for those remaining on board.

A Russian oceanographer was on board the Agulhas and, acting as ice pilot, flew in the rescue helicopter on 27 June. He reported that the ice blocking the Magdalena Oldendorff's escape route was then four nautical miles across and estimated it to be about 30 inches thick. If the icebreakers do not get through, the ship and a skeleton crew will have to stay in on the Antarctic coast until the ice melts in November. The Agulhas returned to Cape Town.

Sources: Klaus Strübing, Bundesamt für Seeschiffahrt und Hydrographie; Oldendorff Carriers Press Office; Argentina Armada; South African Dept of Environmental Affairs and Tourism; SMIT Marine South Africa; Brendan Boyle and Mike Hutchings (Reuters) Cape Town, South Africa; BBC News reporters, members of the Sea Ice and Polar Oceanography Group, and other polar specialists at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

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