China's research icebreaker Xuelong 2 spent over 33 hours rescuing four Papua New Guineans stranded at sea while on its 40th Antarctic expedition, in a display of seamanship and humanitarian spirit.
As the expedition crew was celebrating Xuelong 2 crossing the equator on Friday, the bridge watchkeepers spotted a boat in the distance with "people waving yellow clothing" — a clear distress signal, according to Chen Donglin, first mate aboard Xuelong 2.
"At first sight from afar, it looked just like a black spot. When we came nearer, we found there were people screaming for help," Chen told China Central Television.
Captain Xiao Zhimin immediately made the decision to slow down and stop the icebreaker after learning of the situation. Consulting with the crew, Xiao decided for Xuelong 2 to maintain a safe distance and assess the situation of the 12-meter vessel carrying four people, which appeared to be without power.
"It's a legal obligation to save life. We had to," Xiao said.
After notifying authorities back home and deploying a drone for a close-up view, Xuelong 2 made contact with the vessel in distress at 4:40 pm that day. An emergency team was also set up back in China.
The people aboard the vessel were identified as four Papua New Guinean fishermen who had run out of fuel and had lost battery power for nine hours after departing from Emirau Island going to Kavieng. Xuelong 2 provided the men with urgent supplies of water, food and diesel, and charged their batteries.
However, after being unable to restart the vessel's engine for six hours and in worsening conditions, Xuelong 2 contacted local maritime rescue authorities and made arrangements for a rescue.
The next day, the expedition team was informed that a scheduled relief vessel was unable to reach the stranded fishermen. For the safety of those rescued and the expedition's timely progress, Xuelong 2's crew made the swift decision to transfer the fishermen and their boat onboard, and take them home.
After five more hours of navigation, Xuelong 2 safely delivered the fishermen and vessel near Kavieng at 11 pm on Saturday and handed them over to local authorities.
Xuelong 2 then continued its way to its scientific research mission in Antarctica.
"Despite challenges to its Antarctic mission, the icebreaker prioritized its duty to answer any vessel in distress under international maritime law and with compassionate care for human life," said Li Ning, a CCTV reporter onboard Xuelong 2.