John Bacon, USA TODAY
Efforts to rescue an Australian research team whose cruise ship became trapped in ice off Antarctica on Christmas Day took a step backward Monday when the icebreaker sent to free the ship was forced to retreat to open water.
The Australian icebreaker Aurora Austalis was buffeted by 30-mph winds and snow showers as it ground toward the MV Akademic Shokalskiy, a Russian ship with 74 people aboard, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority reported.
"These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today's attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy," the authority, which is heading the rescue effort, said in a statement.
Expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at Australia's University of New South Wales, has been tweeting and blogging during the trip. He tweeted Monday at 7 a.m. ET (11 p.m. AEDT): "Bad news: Aurora couldn't get through. Tried twice. Low visibility & heavy ice. Returning to open water. Try again tomorrow? #spiritofmawson".
Moments later he tweeted: "Shocking weather today. Wet & windy. Had to use tent for comms on top deck. Aladdin's Cave. In the #spiritofmawson!" The tweet included a photo of a tent secured on the deck of the cruise ship.
The authority said the icebreaker closed to within 10 miles of the cruise ship before retreating and now sits about 18 miles away. Another attempt will be made to reach the cruise ship once conditions improve, the statement said.
A Chinese ship tasked by the Royal Coast Guard Australia also remained in the vicinity to assist if needed. The Chinese ship was equipped with a helicopter in case the Aurora Australis was unable to reach the stranded ship.
RCC Australia said it was in regular contact with the Akademik Shokalskiy, adding that the ship has supplies for two more weeks and that the everyone was reported to be safe and well.
The passengers include 22 crew and 52 tourists, scientists and explorers. The ship, which left New Zealand last month, is on a research voyage to honor the 100th anniversary of Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.
The cruise ship, stuck about 1,500 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania, has not suffered damage. Morale remains high and passengers have ample provisions, Turney has written.
The search and rescue operation began on Christmas morning after Britain's Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre received a distress message via satellite from the Akademik Shokalskiy.
The distress message and subsequent coordination of the incident was passed to RCC Australia, which is the search and rescue authority responsible for this area.