Antarctic supply ship trapped in ice for Christmas

24 December 2001

The Hon Dr Sharman Stone MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Federal Member for Murray

A group of 40 Australians and the crew of the chartered Antarctic supply ship Polar Bird are spending Christmas Day beset in heavy Antarctic pack ice – but securing a supply of festive refreshment has ensured that their unique Christmas will be a happy one.

Dr Sharman Stone, Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Australian Antarctic Division, has been in satellelite phone communication with the voyage leader Dr Joe Johnson who has assured her that the expeditioners and crew are cheerfully making the best of it.

"I have passed on the best wishes of all Australians to the crew and scientists on board. Certainly this is a reminder that the Antarctic is one of the last of the wild frontiers. The weather still determines where and when ships can safely travel, just as in the days when sails were set."

Polar Bird has been locked in by heavy pack ice about 500 kilometres, or four days' steaming, from Mawson station. The ship had been due back in Hobart by the end of December, but a combination of bad weather and ice conditions have put it around three weeks behind schedule.

With no sign of a weather change to cause the ice to break up, it may be necessary for the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, six days' sailing away at Casey, to come to the ship's aid.

The party of 40 expeditioners and 25 crew are being kept occupied with a program of work and diversions - ice and wildlife observations and competitions, including "polar games" and quiz nights. A particularly vigorous game of soccer involving some bumps and scrapes was held in the ship's hold since the ice outside was not considered a "level playing field".

But the expeditioners' biggest worry approaching Christmas Eve has been a question-mark over whether the beer supply would be enough to allow them to celebrate Christmas the Australian way. Norwegians among the crew – whose big celebrations are on Christmas Eve – were also a consideration.

"We have now located a small supply of beer aboard destined for Mawson station – enough to see us through the festive season – which the Mawson station leader has kindly agreed to make available," the voyage leader, Dr Johnson, advised late on Christmas Eve.

The 40 expeditioners aboard the ship comprise tradespeople to be disembarked at Mawson for summer maintenance and construction work on the Antarctic station, some scientists, and helicopter pilots and engineers.

Dr Stone said the Australian Government recognised the need for an air service back-up for Antarctica to ensure maximum time in the field for the men and women needed for Australia's environmental research and conservation program, unhindered by ship delays.

"Our program to put this service in place, including plans for an ice runway for an intercontinental air link, are on track and I expect to be able to announce further progress early in the New Year," Dr Stone said.

Note: Polar Bird, formerly named Icebird, has served with the Australian Antarctic program since 1984. It is chartered by the Australian Antarctic Division and is currently mid-way through its first voyage for the 2001-2002 Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition. The ship had just completed the major resupply of Australia's Davis station, and its two helicopters have been supporting the nearby Chinese station Zhong Shan. The ship has also supported scientific field parties in the Prince Charles Mountains and the Amery Ice Shelf.