One of the world's most powerful ice-breakers is on its way from Sydney to Antarctica, as the cost of the sea rescues soar into the millions of dollars.
Luck had the US Coast Guard's heavy ice-breaker Polar Star in Sydney this week, and it is expected to reach the beset tourist expedition ship Akademik Shokalskiy, and similarly-stricken Chinese Xue Long, within a week.
The Xue Long tried to free the Russian vessel, which became trapped in ice floes before Christmas, before becoming stuck itself.
The Polar Star was only recommissioned for service last month after years out of action and had paused in Sydney on its way south to the US McMurdo base when it was diverted.
''I think it's fortunate that there is an ice-breaker with the capability of getting into this area,'' said Tony Press, executive director of the Antarctic Co-operative Research Centre in Hobart.
Meanwhile, the Australian ship Aurora Australis was still days away from resuming its resupply at Casey station, after a diversion that would amount to more than $1 million in ship's operating costs, an informed source said.
The Aurora Australis is also carrying an extra 52 people, rescued from the Akademik Shokalskiy by a helicopter from the Xue Long, for around two more weeks.
The Chinese government faces similar operating costs in fuel and other charges over the use of the Xue Long, while the Polar Star's diversion will chew through more fuel as it breaks into old, heavily packed ice around the ships near Commonwealth Bay.
But with Polar Star diverted away from the vital annual task of breaking a shipping channel into McMurdo, Dr Press said the financial costs were outweighed by the trouble for national programs.
''I think the most unfortunate thing about this whole incident is that it has the potential to seriously disrupt the research program of several nations,'' he said.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority 's general manager of emergency response, John Young, said costs of the ships' diversion would broadly fall to their government owners, and perhaps to insurance.
The Polar Star is expected to take about seven days to reach the two ships. It can break 1.8-metre thick ice thought to surround these ships at a speed of three knots and 6.5 metres of ice by ramming, said the Coast Guard.
If there is a change in the weather, it may sweep out the pack ice trapping the two ships.