The French research crew had endured a long, difficult winter at their station on a tiny cluster of islands just off the Antarctic coast, but relief was on the way.
Until it wasn’t.
The French icebreaker L’Astrolabe was set to deliver supplies and a fresh batch of explorers to the Dumont d’Urville research station south of Australia, but on Nov. 15, France’s Polar Institute announced that the ship’s propeller had been damaged. “In the ice you have to take no risk with the security of the passengers and of the crew,” Capt. Celine Tuccelli told ABC News Australia this week.
A total of 42 researchers were stranded, possibly for weeks in a situation that the leader of France’s mission at Dumont d’Urville, Alain Quivoron told ABC was “frustrating.”
“Most of the younger members of the mission would have been happy to stay longer, but the older ones find the situation inconvenient and would have preferred to come back to their families,” Quivoron said.
Fortunately, Australia is now coming to the rescue.
Last week, the Australian government pledged to dispatch an icebreaker to Dumont d’Urville and another French-Italian research base at Concordia. The Aurora Australis will arrive in Hobart, Tasmania at the end of the month, and then push south in early December to bring the weary explorers home.
The faulty ship, L’Astrolabe, is just a little over two years old, and was completed in 2017 to replace an older vessel of the same name.
“There is a great spirit of cooperation and support among the nations working in Antarctica and we are very happy we can help our French colleagues when needed,” Australian Antarctic Division Director Kim Ellis said in a statement.
It wasn’t just people who wanted to get out of Antarctica that were held up; crew members eager to get to the remote research station celebrated Australia’s intervention as well. French meteorologist François Gourand celebrated the news on Twitter and on his blog and expressed his relief that the trip would continue despite the hiccup.
French Polar Institute Director Jerome Chappellaz praised the decision, noting that without the intervention, “keeping our research stations running and undertaking scientific research would have been extremely difficult.”