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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

3 Filmmakers Stranded on Far North Island




Three international filmmakers, stranded on a Russian island in the arctic while making a wildlife documentary, were down to their last two days' supply of tea and buckwheat, emergency officials said Monday.


The Japanese, Australian and Russian crew members were weak from hunger and cold, and hoping rescuers would reach them before their fuel supplies also ran out, emergency officials said Monday.


Helicopters have been standing by for at least a week to pluck the film crew off Wrangel Island, 200 kilometers north of Mys Schmidta on Chukotka, but they have been grounded by ferocious snowstorms and high winds.


The weather is unlikely to improve for at least another few days, said a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry's Far East headquarters in Khabarovsk.


The troubles of Japanese television producer Tatsuhiko Kobayashi, Australian cameraman Rory McGuinness and Russian wildlife expert Nikita Ovsyannikov have attracted wide attention, in large part because of the outcry from the foreign television stations that employ them and the diplomats looking out for their interests in Russia.


But tens of thousands of people who live on the Chukotka Peninsula have been suffering a dire shortage of food and fuel, and they have received relatively little attention in Moscow or elsewhere in the world.


A tanker arrived only last week with the fuel to heat homes through the winter in the remote northern region, where some villages had been without heat or electricity for weeks.


The delivery, expected during the summer, was delayed first by the government's lack of cash and then when the tanker was trapped in ice for two weeks. Food deliveries have also been held up, and there has been talk of needing to evacuate entire towns.


The film crew has been on the arctic island since Sept. 2 filming a documentary on polar bears and sea lions.


They had planned to leave Oct. 15, but continued filming and ran into bad weather. By late November they had stayed twice as long as intended and their supplies were running dangerously low.


The co-producers of the documentary, Japanese NHK television and New Zealand television, have become quite anxious about the crew members' condition.


"Their spirits are far from being cheerful. They are very weak," a staff member at NHK television's Moscow bureau said.Kobayashi, 34, who recently underwent eye surgery, has complained of problems with his eyes and may need urgent surgery, the staff member said.


The film crew is waiting for help in a remote hut on Mys Blossom, keeping in touch by satellite telephone and e-mail.


They are heating the hut only to about zero degrees Celsius to conserve fuel, the Emergency Situations Ministry officer said. The outside temperature is minus 20 degrees Celsius, but the wind chill factor makes it feel even colder and the sun is up only for a few hours each day.


Because the project was being run out of NHK's Tokyo office, the Moscow bureau said it was unaware that the crew was in Chukotka until it received an urgent e-mail message Nov. 22.


The following day, the Japanese television company contacted the Emergency Situations Ministry, and two Mi-8 helicopters were sent immediately to Mys Schmidta and Pevek, two of the larger settlements on Chukotka.


The embassies of Australia, Japan and New Zealand in Russia have been following the rescue operation closely.


"Every effort is being made to rescue them," said Geoffrey Becher, the Australian consul in Moscow.


"Everything depends on the weather now," he said, adding that the Emergency Situations Ministry has backup plans if the snowstorms do not let up.


Emergency officials in Khabarovsk, though, said the only realistic way to reach the stranded crew is by helicopter. Wrangel Island cannot be approached by sea in winter, they said.


Residents in the closest settlement on the island, Ushakovsky, some 120 kilometers away, had tried to get through by snowmobile but had to abandon the effort, Reuters reported. The settlement had little food to spare anyway .


John Hyde, a producer at Natural History New Zealand, which employs Australian cameraman McGuinness, told Reuters that his company was considering an airdrop of supplies.


But the Russian ministry said if a helicopter could fly over the island to drop supplies it also could pick up the crew.


"It's the weather that makes all the variants equally impossible," the duty officer in Khabarovsk said. "We can only hope that the snowstorm quiets down."