The ship, en route to Newfoundland, became stuck shortly after 8 p.m. The Canadian Coast Guard vessel Louis S. St-Laurent is on the scene Tuesday evening to keep the ferry moving.
"It encountered some pressurized thick ice just off Cape Breton and became stuck," said Darrell Mercer of Marine Atlantic. "This is just another of those challenges Mother Nature seems to be throwing at us."
Once the ferry gets through the ice on the Cape Breton side, Mercer said, sailing should be much easier.
Passengers are getting complimentary meals.
Mercer said the captain has informed him the ferry should be arriving in Port aux Basques around 10 p.m. local time. Once it arrives, it will unload and head back to North Sydney.
Mercer said that last winter the ice moved into the area in late March and early April.
"This year, it moved in early to mid-February, and it doesn’t show any signs of going away any time soon," he said. "I’ve heard the Canadian Coast Guard say it’s the worst of the 30-year averages they’ve been keeping."
Once the Highlanders clears the thick ice, it’s got a fairly clear path to Port aux Basques.
Mercer expects more easterly winds to blow ice into the route on Wednesday, which could cause more problems for the ferry.
"We certainly hope the Canadian Coast Guard, the ice-breaking services, will stay in the area, as we expect we are going to need their services for the next couple of days."
He said most customers are commercial transport operators, with few tourists on the ferry during the winter months.
"It is travelling on the ocean in the winter, and it just so happens that this winter is much more challenging than past winters," he said.