Antarctic Ship Rescue: 5 Lessons From the Trapped-Vessel Drama

The frozen continent is unpredictable, for instance. And: have a plan C.

The M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy (pictured), has been stuck in ice since Christmas Eve.

After a "sobering week," 52 passengers aboard the M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy were airlifted by helicopter on Thursday from the Russian vessel, which has been trapped in ice in East Antarctica since Christmas Eve.

"Feeling relieved that this process is mostly over now," Andrew Peacock, a photographer aboard the ship, told National Geographic by email. "We are very grateful to everyone."

Peacock added that he's sad that 22 Russian crew members, as part of their employment, have to remain on the ship until the ice breaks up enough for them to free the vessel from its frozen grip.

The scientists, media, and students aboard the ship were returning from a month-long scientific expedition that revisited sites in East Antarctica first seen by Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson's team over a hundred years ago. (See also: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions.")

We have learned from nature, as humankind always does," Peacock said, "that it’s possible to be caught by an unexpected and not predicted situation.

Two nearby icebreakers attempted to rescue the ship but were thwarted by heavy ice themselves, eventually prompting a rescue operation by helicopter from the Chinese vessel Xue Long.

We talked to Antarctic experts about what can be learned from this modern-day Antarctic drama. Five lessons:

1. When traveling in Antarctica, be prepared for anything.

Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University who leads several Antarctic research groups, said that means planning for the worst-case scenario, as well as having a plan B, C, and D. That might mean stocking up on food and supplies that can last a really long time—which the Akademik Shokalskiy crew did.

Also crucial is to "always travel with a captain and crew experienced in Antarctic waters" who know to "err on the side of caution when entering ice-infested waters," Kennicutt said by email. (See your Antarctica photos.)

Adventure writer David Roberts noted that it's unusual for a ship like Akademik Shokalskiy to get caught in ice.

"A good captain is intensely leery of [getting caught in ice] and knows how to avoid it," said Roberts, author of the Mawson book Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration.

But without knowing exactly what happened in the case of Akademik Shokalskiy, he added, "I'm not going to second-guess the Russian captain."

Peacock told National Geographic that the ship and crew were "very well prepared for ship-and-shore-based travel in this part of the world."

"Our Russian captain and our expedition team, of which I was a member as the doctor, are all very experienced," he said. "We were unlucky we believe and the ice pack that developed around us was much thicker and heavier than our ship was capable of breaking through."

2. Rescues in the 21st century are pretty much guaranteed.

Up until about the 1970s, if you were an explorer who got into trouble, you had to rescue yourself, said Roberts.

In 1911, for instance, Mawson and his crew knew there was no hope of rescue: They had no contact with the outside world, and if a ship got stuck in the ice, their only option was to spend the winter onboard and hope the next summer's thaw freed the vessel. (Related: "Opinion: 6 Reasons Antarctic Explorers Were Tougher 100 Years Ago.")

It’s a royal f--- up and it’s being treated as something heroic.

Nowadays—with the exception of deep caves—people in trouble can be removed from virtually anywhere, even a Himalayan peak, Roberts said.

"It's taken for granted, like it's a God-given right that you'll be rescued."

That's why Roberts takes issue with the intense media focus that implies the Akademik Shokalskiy crew is enduring great hardship.

"It's a royal f--- up and it's being treated as something heroic," he said.

"If I were in that situation, I would retreat with my tail between my legs instead of singing songs about the penguins," he said.

Peacock, the photographer and doctor aboard the ship, noted that "we were not in any danger, but it was still an unsettling experience for everyone aboard, and it was great to see how we all pulled together to support one another."

3. The other two icebreakers' efforts to free the ship should be applauded—as should the helicopter pilot who made the rescue.

China's Xue Long and Australia's Aurora Australis both got within miles of the stranded ship but had to turn back due to thick ice and poor weather.

Unable to fly for a few days due to poor conditions, the helicopter aboard the Xue Long finally landed on the Akademik Shokalskiy and rescued the passengers.

"Helicoptering in places like that isn't a piece of cake," Roberts said, noting that Antarctic weather can be unpredictable and dangerous.

He called the icebreakers' assistance a "great humanitarian act."

4. The ice surrounding the ship doesn't mean that Antarctica's not melting. reported that global warming skeptics have poked fun at the scientists, highlighting the irony of climate change scientists being trapped in ice.

But expedition leader Chris Turney said that the team's situation may have been in part due to warming oceans, which broke an iceberg into smaller pieces that the wind then swept against the ship, according to

Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, added by email that "any comments about overall ice shrinking or increasing are absurd in this situation.

"In the Antarctic, the ice is not limited by land and it is well established that winds blow the ice around. Winds from the south, especially off the continent, carry ice away from the continent and create more ice behind, filling in any gaps."

5. Antarctic travel is really, really unpredictable.

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on Earth, and extreme blizzards can arise out of nowhere. Such a storm prevented the Australian icebreaker from getting any closer to the stranded ship.

"We have learned from nature, as humankind always does," Peacock said, that it's possible to be "caught by an unexpected and not predicted" situation.

"We were," he said, "in the wrong place at the wrong time."

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