Spirit of Mawson Expedition: the food situation

Since our last look the Akademik Shokalskiy has sailed back to New Zealand and the Australasian Antarctic Expedition has finally managed to dock at … Antarctica.

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”.

food ship

Dry food rations being loaded for delivery; Screengrab from video (c) Fairfax Media

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.



  1. plazaeme

    Let’s take note of the ironies because we have a load of them.

    1. They sailed to tell the world the poles where losing their ice, and it was worse than we thought. But … they got stuck in the ice.

    2. They told it was a scientific expedition, but they had plenty of children and tourists to care about – not to speak about journos.

    3. They called the expedition The Spirit of Mawson, but they flew at the first inconvenience … asking for the help of the whole galaxy.

    4. They were “rescued” by an armada of icebreakers, but sailed back to their home port a week later than their (not rescued) ship.

    5. Finnaly they are accused of being alarmists … and, alarmed they were.

    We need a Shakespeare to write a homage to #spiritofmawson. 😉

  2. Shub Niggurath

    Yes, there are too many ironies. This requires the laughter of the gods.

    Consider how wildly their idea of ice swings:

    On the 22nd, when the storm was approaching blowing in sea ice toward the shore, they dallied on the islands and got stuck.

    After getting stuck, they thought it was just some meagre, thin ice and cheered on as the Xue Long came near

    After the Xue Long and the Australis couldn’t break through, they declared it was all multi-year ice from a nearby iceberg and would be trapped in it for years.

    What was supposed to take years turned into just a week as the pack ice loosened itself and let the ship free.

  3. tlitb1

    Regarding the charges and costs; I don’t know if you’ve seen this Mawson itinerary before but it mentions two “legs” of the tour


    The AAE is divided into two legs, the first focused on the Australasian subantarctic islands. On this second, longer voyage we will head south, deep into the Southern Ocean

    and has some information about the prices of the second leg to the Antarctic, e.g.

    A range of berths are available for this leg of the AAE

    MINI SUITE $18,900pp
    These cabins include a separate bedroom with a double bed and a single bed or sofa in the lounge, writing desk, wardrobe and draws. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. Large side facing windows to allow great views.

    SUPERIOR PLUS $17,500pp
    These cabins include two lower berths, writing desk, wardrobe and draws. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. These cabins have side windows.

    SUPERIOR $16,900pp
    These cabins include one bunk (one upper and one lower berth), writing desk, wardrobe and draws. Private bathroom with shower, toilet and washbasin. These cabins have side windows.

  4. Shub Niggurath

    TLITB, I had seen that flyer. The expeditions online website claims a total of 26 tourist berths. In any event however, someone – either oneself out-of-pocket or an external source of funding – must have paid for all 52 passengers.