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Antarctic Tourism Season Begins with an Icebreaker Stymied by … Ice

It’s that season again – the beginning of Antarctica’s tourist season – and already there’s report of a ship struggling to free itself from heavy ice. The Russian icebreaker “Captain Khlebnikov” has apparently been slowed – though the company that manages the ship is being careful to say it is not stuck nor aground – by typical heavy ice on the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsula. According to company spokesperson the ship it is not in any danger; there are 100 passengers on board, most British.

According to the Associated Press the” Khlebnikov” will need to wait one or two days to resolve the situation. “The icebreaker’s crew is waiting for the weather to change and then the ship will resume its course. The passengers are in no need of assistance,” a spokesman told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. A film crew from the BBC is also on board filming material for a documentary called Frozen Plane; the ship is reportedly continuing its helicopter tours while stymied.

The ship is currently moving slowly, searching ice-free water, near Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea, not far from where the Larsen B ice shelf famously collapsed in 2002. I was at Snow Hill twice last season, but not until about seven weeks later in the season when traditionally – but not always – more of the icebergs and pack ice have been blown out by big winds. Venturing into the Weddell Sea, even in an icebreaker, is always something of a crap shoot, no matter the time of year.

According to Argentine officials the “Khlebnikov” is trying to move slowly through the ice but the winds are too light to break up the ice pack, essentially suspending it in the ice and delaying its return to Ushuaia, Argentina, by three to six days.

“The icebreaker is trying to move and is waiting for more favorable winds,” said a ship’s spokesman. “After the winds get stronger, the ice grip will weaken … and it will break free.” Fingers crossed!

The cruise was advertised as a unique opportunity to watch Emperor Penguins in their natural habitat. The Finnish-built icebreaker has been used as a cruise ship for several years and carries two helicopters. Natalie Amos, a spokeswoman for the tour operator Exodus Travel, said 51 British tourists were among the ship’s 101 passengers. Paul Goldstein, a guide and photographer with Exodus, traveling on the ship, told the BBC News that the ship was trying to move. “We’re breaking ice,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously there’s frustration, but we’re going to get back perfectly safe.”

Rene Reibel, operations chief for the Argentine Coast Guard in Ushuaia, told The Associated Press that the icebreaker was moving amid floating ice and no one was in danger. “This ship was never stuck or run aground,” he said. “It’s floating, it has its engines and control.”

With tourism still growing along the Antarctic Peninsula groundings and tourist ships stuck in ice are becoming an annual happening. Last season it was the “Ocean Nova” and the “Ushuaia” which were stranded on rocks. In 2007 the Norweigan “Fram” lost power off the tip of the Peninsula and banged into a glacier. And of course in November 2007 the very first Antarctic tourist ship, the “Explorer,” sank off the tip of the Peninsula, spilling 185,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants.