Russian fishing boat sinking in Antarctic waters

In this photo released by Maritime New Zealand, the Russian fishing vessel Sparta is seen in waters in the Ross Sea near Antarctica, Dec. 16, 2011. AP

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A Russian fishing vessel with 32 crew members was taking on water near Antarctica on Friday. Heavy sea ice was hampering rescue efforts, and officials said it could be four or five days before anybody reaches the ship to try to rescue the crew.

The Sparta was listing at 13 degrees next to the Antarctic ice shelf in the Ross Sea, according to Maritime New Zealand. The agency said that the crew was safe and was throwing cargo overboard to lighten the ship, and that some of the crew had boarded lifeboats as a precaution.

The ship has a 1-foot hole in the hull about 5 feet below the water line, the agency said. The crew so far had managed to pump out much of the incoming water and had attached a tarpaulin over the outside of the hole to slow the water flooding in, the agency said.

The crew have asked for more pumps to be sent to them and will try and make repairs to the hull, the agency said, adding it was trying to figure out a way to deliver the pumps.

"It's a very remote, unforgiving environment," said Andrew Wright, executive secretary of the Australian-based Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which has licensed the Sparta to catch toothfish in the Southern Ocean.

Wright said he didn't know what caused the hole, although he added that an iceberg "would be a good candidate."

The Sparta, which is 157 feet long, sent a distress call early Friday. Maritime New Zealand said heavy ice in the Southern Ocean would make it difficult for other ships to reach the vessel.

The Sparta's sister ship Chiyo Maru No. 3 was 290 nautical miles away and heading toward the stricken vessel but had no capacity to cut through sea ice, the agency said. A New Zealand vessel, the San Aspiring, had some ice-cutting ability and was also en route, but was four or five days away. A third vessel was just 19 nautical miles away, but it was hemmed in by heavy ice and unable to move toward the Sparta.

Ramon Davis, who is coordinating rescue efforts for Maritime New Zealand, said a C-130 Hercules plane that arrived from Antarctica flew over the scene to assess ice conditions in the area to speed up the rescue efforts. But Davis said the aircraft would not be able to pick up the crew.

Davis said there were no helicopters in the area and that another vessel remained the most viable option for trying to rescue the crew.

"It is possible the crew will have a fairly long wait for rescue," he said.

He said that if the crew manage to lighten the ship enough by getting rid of cargo and pumping out water, it's possible the hole in the hull would rise above the water line.

The crew has some emergency immersion suits that could keep them alive for a time in freezing water, Maritime New Zealand said.

The weather in the area was calm, with temperatures a relatively mild 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

Commission records list the captain of the Sparta, which was built in 1988, as Oleg Pavlovich Starolat, who is Russian.

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