If being stuck on a vessel with nowhere to go was the concern, the scientist-tourist group could not be in worse shape. They went from playing in sea ice and taking pictures of penguins to being stuck on a ship on stormy seas, restricted to their quarters and not allowed off-limit areas.
The Shokalskiy was an ice-strengthened vessel no doubt, and not an ice-breaker as Turney was shamefully allowed to claim in Nature magazine but left in place there was perhaps a small risk of being overturned or crushed.
Other pressing concerns, it appears, drove the evacuation: the ship was running out of food. Ironically, a similar fate once befell the original Mawson expedition. Though emitting constant reassurances to the contrary, it appears they were scraping the barrel.
As late as 30th of December last year Chris Turney told they had, as the the New York Times reported, ‘enough food and other necessities to last several weeks’. By January 1st, former WWF-Australia ‘communicator’ and ARC spokesman Alvin Stone was telling ABC Australia the ship had “two weeks of fresh food”. Three days later, after the so-called rescue mission, Turney relayed they “only had five day’s supply left”.
However it was not just the food. Hemmed in by thick-multi-year ice, the team speculated it would become part of fast ice and never free itself for years. This was even as observers noted differences between driven, ridged pack-ice surrounding the veseel and fast ice encountered en-route to Mawson’s huts.
The food situation highlights an important conflict. If this were a hardy science team, they could have waited out the freeze. Instead these were tourists under scientists’ care. By every conservative estimate, the tourists funded
the a significant bulk of the expedition. For instance, If one hypothetically assumes $16,500 paid by each of the 52 evacuees, it comes to $858,000. The spectre of feeding their patrons mince beef rations for an indefinite length of time, which the Shokalskiy crew was happy to receive, must have weighed on the science team’s minds.
As predicted, the vessel freed itself when the winds changed. As the precautionary evacuation got underway, fate withdrew its hands. It instead followed the boarding party on the Aurora Australis, sending another storm her way.
From the the hasty diversion of the Aurora Australis to the dangerous helicopter missions, the moves made have been a reactionary mess. As Plazaeme notes, ‘fear and precipitation seldom come cheap’.
Note: Minor edits for clarity. The number of tourists on the mission has been estimated to be around 20. As mentioned by Turney in his Q&A session, the berth sales were how they “fund[ed] a large part of the trip”. Berths for both tourists and non-tourists taken together would form the major portion of the cost, though the exact price non-tourists were charged is not clear. It is unlikely, for instance, that university travel funds in excess of $16,000 were available to PhD students so it is probable they were charged a different (lower) price. This state of affairs would only impose added responsibilities on the scientists.