The Australian Government is not planning a public inquiry into the distress call from the Russian cruise ship Akademik Shokalskiy when it became ice bound in the Antarctic 24 December 2013

On 14 January I faxed The Hon Jamie Briggs MP
Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development – to read click last link below.
The reply from the Chief of Staff for Minister The Hon Warren Truss is scanned page 1 and page 2.
Just after I wrote, the ship arrived at Bluff NZ where it was reported the captain put out a pan-pan call. Crew thaw after Antarctic ordeal
I my opinion authorities should make public exactly what was heard by Falmouth – was it a mayday or a pan pan? Google mayday and pan pan for background.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority – AMSA
Apparently unnecessary “distress” call by MV Akademik Shokalskiy and associated safety issues

Dear Minister,

A series of AMSA media releases commencing 11.30am AEDT: 25th December 2013 “Update 1: Antarctic search and rescue” sets out the responses by AMSA to events in the Antarctic over Christmas and New Year leading to the much publicised rescue of the 52 members of The Australasian Antarctic Expedition and associated journalists.

I believe the government should institute a serious and impartial review of both the distress call from the MV Akademik Shokalskiy and the response to it. AMSA say the initial distress call from MV Akademik Shokalskiy was picked up at Falmouth in the United Kingdom; then Falmouth contacted AMSA. None of those communications have been published and they all should be.

While the actual communications between the MV Akademik Shokalskiy and the Australian authorities have not been published, it seems from AMSA’s reports that after their Update 1, they could very well have concluded that the emergency did not warrant ordering the Australian Antarctic Division ship RSV Aurora Australis to immediately cease cargo operations at Casey and go to the MV Akademik Shokalskiy’s rescue. The MV Akademik Shokalskiy had plenty of food and passengers were only delayed until a wind change broke up the ice.

The Aurora Australis had an 800 nautical mile voyage east before she could aid the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which would take 3 or 4 days. Since the helicopter-equipped Chinese ice breaker Xue Long was responding from a closer location, a better course of action may well have been for AMSA to let the Aurora Australis complete unloading/loading operations at Casey and then assist MV Akademik Shokalskiy if required.

The potential danger to MV Akademik Shokalskiy and personnel was from the tenuous possibility that icebergs might have impacted the ship – a possibility that the crew and passengers would have had to respond to as best they could until the Chinese ice-breaker Xue Long helicopter was in range.

The despatch of the Aurora Australis caused further disruption to the resupply of Australia’s Antarctic bases, already behind schedule because that vessel had itself been delayed by ice for 3 weeks on its previous voyage. It also culminated in a dangerous rescue operation in which the passengers only of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy were airlifted by the Xue Long’s helicopter to the Aurora Australis, with the 8-tonne helicopter having to repeatedly land on sea ice near the Australis before the passengers were lifted aboard on a raft. The Aurora Australis next had to return to Casey to complete its resupply work, which was then further delayed by bad weather. At about the time the Aurora Australis reached Casey, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy had freed itself from the ice and was heading to New Zealand I believe.

I believe a full and rigorous investigation is required into many questions surrounding this chain of events. For example, should the Akademik Shokalskiy have been allowed to take children on the voyage? Was the “distress” call justified on marine safety grounds? Were AMSA’s responses appropriate, given all the circumstances and risks? Was the “rescue” by the Chinese helicopter the safest and correct course?

This should not be an exercise of naming and blaming, but nor should it be a whitewash. The whole incident had significant repercussions on scientific activity by multiple nations in the Antarctic and every possible lesson needs to be learned to avoid the risk of potential disaster arising from future unofficial semi-scientific excursions in the region.

I would be grateful for your response and for permission to publish it on my website.

3 thoughts on “The Australian Government is not planning a public inquiry into the distress call from the Russian cruise ship Akademik Shokalskiy when it became ice bound in the Antarctic 24 December 2013”

  1. The reply from Deputy Prime Minister Truss’ office is quite a scoop, congratulations. Several interesting new details emerge.

    Obviously there has already been an internal inquiry, which has confirmed suspicions some of us had at the time that the danger of the situation was being hushed up. Remember Turney’s grinning bulletins, the silly songs on deck, and general loud, forced gaiety, contrasted with Greg Mortimer’s ashen-faced relief after the passengers had been successfully transferred to the Australis.

    The civvies were no doubt fed reassuring words about just being stuck and nothing to worry about. Only later did it emerge that an iceberg had already torn a hole in the ship during the night it tried to escape after several junketeers had gone AWOL all afternoon, delaying their departure as the pack ice closed in on them. Truss’ man now says diplomatically: “I understand the public material from journalists and expeditionaries aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy may not have conveyed the gravity of the situation”.

    Still, without a full and open enquiry, I don’t see how a similar shambles can be prevented from happening in future.

  2. A few other interesting points in the official response:

    – “As the incident occurred in the Australian Search and Rescue Region, the response was co-ordinated overall by JRCC Australia [part of AMSA]”
    – “Any review of the validity of the distress call…is a matter for…Russia”
    – “AMSA thoroughly assessed the…situation facing Akademik Shokalskiy and does not agree that the emergency did not warrant sending the Aurora Australis to assist…icebergs [were] moving independently of the ice-pack [and] there were significant uncertainties about what would happen to her [the Shokaslkiy] as the pack ice pressure increased – as it did visibly for many days and with some effects on the ship”
    – “AMSA pursued rescue operations, while they were available, to reduce the number of people at risk”.
    – “[the rescuing ships] worked within their approved procedures, including using specialist radar to assure the helicopter crew of the safety of the sea ice helipad and not operating the helicopter over open water”.

  3. Points that arise from the above:

    1. Truss’ office declines to pronounce on the validity of the distress call.
    2. We still do not know the substance of the call – the letter ignores your request to release it and subsequent messages.
    3. AMSA is the agency responsible for the whole operation and thinks it did the right thing.

    OK, but the Australian Government has made a Declaration of Open Government to “promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy…built on better access to and use of government held information”. So where are the messages, who decided what, how much did it cost, who pays for what, and how can the taxpayer be assured this won’t happen again?

    It shouldn’t take FOI requests to get this information, and true participation requires a public enquiry. All in all, the response is disappointing and may well cost us dear if and when a similar irresponsible excursion results tragedy rather than a lucky escape.

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