On Christmas morning the Russian ship M V Akademik Shokalskiy sent out a distress call over radio after it was surrounded by sea ice in East Antarctica. Carrying 52 people, mostly researchers journalists and paying passengers, the ship was on a privately funded scientific mission, the Spirit of Mawson - Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-14 - to recreate the iconic (but later tragic) journey that Australian explorer Douglas Mawson made from 1911 to 1913.
Driving snow, accompanied by high winds and impenetrable fog, had thwarted rescue attempts. Led by expedition leader Chris Turney, the expedition set out from Auckland on November 28, 2013 and made good progress until they hit heavy ice late on Christmas day. They would now need help to get out of the ice, and a Chinese ice-breaker, Xue Long or The Snow Dragon, set out on a rescue mission. A French ship was also pressed on a mission but both ships could not progress in heavy pack ice. An Australian rescue ship, the Aurora Australis, was then entrusted with the task of rescuing the marooned explorers. Extreme weather prevented the ship from carrying out the rescue or reaching the mired Akademik Shokalskiy. Scout helicopters were sent to assess the situation. The team waited it out, celebrated New Year's Eve aboard the ship, and then stomped on the ice in a group to create a suitable helipad. On January 2, a helicopter from Xue Long transported all 52 crew safely to the Aurora Australis.
Mawson's epic journey purported to study the vast expanse of the uncharted world that lay south of Australia and New Zealand. The Guardian's science journalist Alok Jha wrote that in December one hundred years ago, Mawson led a team to the Antarctic in summer to explore and map as much of the region as possible. With him were Bellgrave Ninnis, a British officer, and Xavier Mertz, a Swiss ski champion. They set out across the ice on foot, with dog sleds. In The Home of the Blizzard (free ebook), his memoir of that tragic journey, Mawson wrote of how he first lost Ninnis, who fell into an ice crevasse, and later Mertz, who suffered violent seizures and died in his sleep. Eventually, to survive, Mawson ended up eating the dogs. Mawson's description of the fearsome Antarctic weather is chilling, to labour the pun. The chafing cold tore away strips of his skin and the soles of his feet, numb and raw, had detached. Though he made an arduous journey of over 500 miles to Commonwealth Bay, where he was to be picked up by a boat, he arrived too late and was forced to stay in the Antarctic for another year.
Jha was among 52 passengers aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, which attempted to emulate Mawson's journey to the eastern Antarctic, posting daily updates as the team collected climatic, biological and oceanographic data to compare with Mawson's expedition. The Guardian's special coverage page, Antarctica Live, featured these blogs. Expedition leader Turney and other members of the crew also posted regular updates on the official blog of the expedition, which makes for an absorbing read.