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Photo of Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his party on the heights above the newly named Proclamation Island in Antarctica.

Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson and his party stand on the heights above the newly named Proclamation Island in Antarctica. (Read more: "Opinion: 6 Reasons Antarctic Explorers Were Tougher 100 Years Ago.")

Photograph by Haynes Archive, Popperfoto/Getty

David Roberts

for National Geographic

Published January 8, 2014

When the Russian research ship Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in the ice off the Antarctic coast on Christmas Eve, it created a drama that quickly grabbed the world's attention.

Why they got so much attention is another question. The 52 scientists, journalists, and tourists on the ship acted entitled instead of being embarrassed by their entirely avoidable predicament.

The members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 (AAE)—who intended to re-create a very small part of Sir Douglas Mawson's original monumental expedition of 1911-14—seemed strangely blasé—even giddily upbeat—during their ten days stranded in the ice. (Related: "Antarctic Ship Rescue: 5 Lessons From the Trapped-Vessel Drama.")

They recorded a New Year's Eve sing-along for YouTube and chatted about yoga classes and knot-tying lessons to while away the time.

On their Spirit of Mawson expedition blog, one passenger signed off on December 28: "It's Saturday and it's bar-time (bar opens at 6 pm), so I am going to leave it here."

They even seemed to relish their crisis. The BBC quoted Tracy Rogers, the team's marine ecologist, as saying, "It's fantastic—I love it when the ice wins and we don't. It reminds you that as humans, we don't control everything ... We've got several penguins watching us, thinking 'What the hell are you doing stuck in our ice?' The sky is a beautiful grey—it looks like it wants to have a bit of a snow. It's the perfect Christmas, really."

For many seasoned adventurers, the team's attitude was hard to swallow. It seemed to betoken a new kind of entitlement, in which folks who get into serious trouble take it for granted that other people will risk their lives to save them. (Related: "Best Pictures From Dramatic Antarctic Ship Rescue.")

The Real Heroes

Perversely, for the general public, the hapless passengers seemed to emerge as the heroes of the story, even though they did nothing but twiddle their thumbs and wait for the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long to come to their rescue, which ended by trapping the much bigger vessel in the ice. The U.S. sent another icebreaker, the U.S. Polar Star, to rescue Xue Long and Shokalskiy, but that mission was recently called off when the ships were able to break free from the ice.

The real heroes of the story were the 101 members of the Xue Long, the 22 crew members of the Shokalskiy who stayed with their ship, the crew of the Polar Star, and that of the Australian ship Aurora Australis that powered south to receive the airlifted refugees.

In the wake of the rescue, a strong undercurrent of criticism began to spread among some Antarctic scientists and journalists. On January 7 on PRI, New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin dismissed the AAE's work as "boutique science." (See also: "Ship Stuck in Antarctica Raises Questions About Worth of Reenacting Expeditions.")

A Frivolous Lark

Other commentators told Revkin that the conditions of the pack ice near Commonwealth Bay (a research subject of the 2013-14 expedition) amounted to an obvious setup for getting frozen in. The whole expedition, these experts implied, amounted to a "frivolous" lark that added almost nothing to our knowledge of the southern continent.

On his Dot Earth blog, Revkin quoted several scientists whose own work was severely compromised by the rescue effort. Revkin concluded, "I'm sure the organizers of the Spirit of Mawson trip were as careful as they could be, but was the trip important enough to justify the cost that is now mounting? I doubt it."

Still unreckoned is that gigantic financial cost and who will pay for it.

It seems unlikely that the dilettantes who signed up for AAE 2013-14 would soon fork over the funds to pay for their perilous and expensive rescue. They're still too busy congratulating themselves.

As expedition leader Chris Turney blogged on January 3, safe and snug aboard the Aurora Australis, "The AAE team have been fantastic. Everyone held together to the end, supporting one another and keeping good humour under very trying conditions . . . providing leadership when needed, continuing the science work when possible, giving talks, providing lessons in all manner of skills, and being available for a quiet chat at almost any hour."

David Roberts is the author of an account of the 1913 expedition called Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration (W. W. Norton & Co., 2013).

17 comments
Pope Algore
Pope Algore

"Opinion: Rescued Antarctic Group Aren't Heroes"


True... these global warming "scientists" getting stuck in the polar ice (that is supposedly melting away?!) made fools of themselves AND all of the religious zealots that blindly believe in Pope Al Gore's crazy religious cult of man-made-climate-change. 


To add insult to injury, the airports back home were all shut down due to snow so none of them could attend their kooky lil' global warming conferences to share their findings.

Pope Algore
Pope Algore

"Opinion: Rescued Antarctic Group Aren't Heroes"


True... these global warming "scientists" getting stuck in the polar ice that is supposedly melting away made fools of themselves AND all of the religious zealots in Pope Al Gore's nutty little religious cult of man-made-climate-change.

Krishna Pillai
Krishna Pillai

Turney's tourists.

This was little more than a PR exercise which went badly wrong.

The Akademik Shokalskiy got free 5days after they abandoned ship with their "dramatic rescue".

A travesty for these dilettantes to invoke the Spirt of Mawson.

anne boad
anne boad

Wow. Big carbon footprint, AAE.

Henrik Løvendahl
Henrik Løvendahl

Well said Colin, Ted and Eugene.  

I am sure the majority of the people on Shokalskiy are not regarding them self as thrill seekers or heroes. They are very "normal" people who wanted to experience Antarctica and most likely would have preferred to sail home on the ship they set out on. 

When you leave the comfort of modern society and venture in to the wild, sometime even with the best laid plans s*** happens.

When stuck with a large group of people on a small ship for a long period you have to try to keep your self entertained. What is wrong with doing a little Yoga or singing a song to keep the moral high? Expecting them to sit in a corner doing nothing with their heads bowed in shame is ridicules.

I have worked on expedition ships in the Polar regions for over 15 years and I have personally been involved in several situations were we had to deviate from our planed itinarary to go assist scientists in need of help. We never thought twice about the inconvenience or how it would effect the trip for the guests, it was just the right thing to do. This is a quote from the latest AMSA Media Release, “This was a great example of the multi-lateral cooperative nature of Antarctic operations” said AMSA Acting CEO Mick Kinley. 

It is a shame the expedition as a large is being judge by the actions of a few, and again by the hype of the media and a few individuals who think they are experts (but probably never been to East Antarctica).

Once the request for assistance was received by AMSA and they were unable to extract the Shokalskiy from the ice they had no other choice then to evacuate the passengers. As it was proven, they knew that sooner or later the ice would shift and they would be able to get out. But the Australis could not leave the area until the ship was free or they had the passengers on board so I guess the best decision for them was to take the passengers with them. 

The call for assistance would not have been an easy call to make. There are only one person on a ship that has the authority to make this call, the Captain. He would not have worried about climate change issues, Mawson's spirit, global media or Antarctic tourism. He's only concern would have been the safety of the passengers, his crew and his ship. He would not have taken orders or been influenced by anyone. The Russian sailors are some of the best ice navigators in the world and I fully back him in his decision. 

I suggest that we get of our "high-horses" and celebrate that Shokalskiy is safely out of the ice and soon will be returning to Antarctica with a new group of aspiring polar adventures. 

I am sure many people will have learned something valuable form this experience, even if not directly involved.


Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

The author here seems to be blowing the whole thing way out of proportion. The people were happy and enjoying their time because they weren't in any danger. Yes the ship was trapped, so they couldn't get to where they were going, but it's not like the ship wrecked and they were left fighting for their lives trying to survive a la polar bear. They were perfectly safe, well fed, warm, etc... why not enjoy their time?


The interest in this whole story is 100% mass-media driven... at first it was almost an attempt to make Russia (read: Putin) look bad because "his" ship got stuck, but then so did everybody else's ships, so that angle didn't work. But so much noise has already been made they can't just disappear off the pages at this point, and so we're being fed these pathetic opinion pieces trying to rail at somebody, anybody.


I don't understand why they needed rescuing at all, it wasn't exactly an emergency situation. Everybody (the passengers at least) were happy, enjoying their time, what are they being rescued from?! And so yes, heroes they're not... but I've not heard or seen anything that suggests the passengers are heroes so that whole bit is beyond me.


Basically the whole situation was blown out of proportion by the media outlets, and now these same media are looking for somebody to blame, someway to cause more noise... they need to sell their stories somehow (and get page views).

Colin Monteath
Colin Monteath

Shame the blog used a well known BANZARE 1929-31 Mawson photo...and not one from his 1911/13 Home of Blizzard expedition to Commonwealth bay....but that aside here is a comment i wrote on my Facebook page on January 2nd when Shokalskiy was still beset. I posted an image of the cruise ship Khlebnikov assisting a British antarctic survey vessel in deep guano (heavy ice) in Weddell Sea......PS: "The US sent another icebreaker Polar Star"...much appreciated and if the two ships didnt get out by themselves then Polar Star's help would have been essential....worth remembering that Polar Star is currently the ONLY operational icebreaker in the US Coast Guard fleet


January 2nd "CARPE DIEM....no doubt there will be plenty of carping about the mounting cost and disruption to 'real' Chinese/French/Australian government science in Antarctica as events play out for the beset tourist vessel Shokalsky....however it should be remembered that there are plenty of examples whereby tourist operations have helped out beleaguered government ships or aircraft. 


In this image Quark Expedition's Russian icebreaker Khlebnikov cuts a channel for a trapped British Antarctic Survey ship (Bransfield) in the Weddell Sea. It could be argued that for the heart of the Weddell the BAS ship was not nearly powerful enough / with insufficient ice classification to handle the BIG sea ice floes / without a helicopter for advance ice recce navigation. Without Khlebnikov's intervention the BAS ship could have been stuck for weeks/months....costing heaps to divert other ships to help.

It is also best to remember that operating in Antarctica both on the continent and in the Southern Ocean has only ever worked when individuals or governments of any stripe or ilk have shared resources and come to the aid of those in trouble...not waving flags, beating drums or counting dollars. The spirit of the Antarctic Treaty and the spirituality of Antarctica as wilderness must prevail....

Clearly, coming to the aid of Shokalsky in East Antarctica is also fundamental to the concept of seamanship."

Richard Lobb
Richard Lobb

This author read my mind.  Too many thrill-seekers think they have a right to be rescued.  Guess what -- never go forth without a plan for retreat.  

Ted Cheeseman
Ted Cheeseman

The Shokalskiy incident interrupted science for the Australian and Chinese Antarctic programs, but let’s have some context. In 20 years of operating Antarctic expeditions I’ve seen many cases where tourist vessels have lent support to science expeditions. Tour operators collectively carry more scientists to and around Antarctica than all but the biggest national party programs. And then there are the vessel rescues… expedition leaders have many stories to share of extracting national party vessels, but when we have done so it does not make national news. One thing is for certain, nobody complains the tourists sacrifice too much to aid a science vessel. This article implies that because some tourists needed aid, they shouldn’t have been in Antarctica. Truth is, mutual support is the nature of stepping into the Antarctic environment, and tourists are more often giving than requesting support. The global community has deemed Antarctica a place for peace and science that does not exclude those who come responsibly. Let’s not be elitist and short sighted by suggesting that normal people don’t have a right or reason to experience the Last Continent.

I write as co owner of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris (http://bit.ly/1bS8VWO) and former executive committee member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).

John C.
John C.

Climate scientists researching global warming get stuck in the Antarctic ice sheet in the middle of the austral summer.


Gaia is just not cooperating with the AGW agenda.

Eric Dienr
Eric Dienr

@Pope Algore Hey "pope", go back to Fox news.....or travel to the Swiss alps where the glaciers are retreating at an alarming rate. Just because there are more storms or snow in your back yard this year doesn't mean the global trend is not obvious when you look at the timeline over the last 100 years.  If you don't care, fine, but don't pretend you know the facts and spout ignorance.

John Holman
John Holman

@Ted Cheeseman 


Thanks for providing balance, which is sorely lacking in this politically driven story. The Aurora Australis, the icebreaker on which the passengers are currently residing, has itself been rescued in the past, and just days before being called in to this rescue, escaped 4 straight weeks of being stuck in the ice. This incident made national news because repellant political hacks saw a chance to attack science. People are being led around by the nose. It's genuinely sad, but is reality on the sensationalist environment of the internet.


No climate scientist has suggested there is less sea ice in Antarctica. The reason we know there is more sea ice is climate scientists have done research throughout the years that allows us to know that. There is ongoing research to figure why sea ice extent is growing on Antarctica. I have read several of the papers pointing to changing wind patterns, fresh water melt, and enhanced ice production in certain polynyas.

Pope Algore
Pope Algore

@John C. Your guide to "proving" AGW is real:


Whenever it's too hot, too cold, too windy, too dry, too humid, too foggy, too icy, too snowy, too sunny, too smoky, too breezy, too hazy, too many earthquakes, too many hurricanes, not enough hurricanes, too many tornadoes, not enough tornadoes, etc, etc.


In the eyes of the truly faithful believers of the Global Warming Cult, every possible weather condition "proves" their religion is real.

Henrik Løvendahl
Henrik Løvendahl

@John C. Yes it seems like a paradox but what does that have to do with anything? There is till ice in Antarctica in summer and this was pack ice.

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