Sydney - Passengers on board a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week are expected to be rescued by helicopter, after three icebreakers failed to reach the paralysed vessel, officials said on Tuesday.
The 74 scientists, tourists and crew on the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been stuck since Christmas Eve, had been hoping the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis would be able to crack through the thick ice and allow them to continue on their way. The Aurora came within 20km of the ship on Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.
On Tuesday, the weather remained bleak, and the crew on the Aurora said their vessel would also be at risk of getting stuck if it made another rescue attempt, according to the Australian maritime safety authority, which is co-ordinating the rescue.
A helicopter on board a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, will be used to collect the passengers. The Snow Dragon, which is waiting with the Aurora at the edge of the ice pack, was also unable to crack through the ice, as was France's L'Astrolabe.
But the helicopter must wait for a break in the weather before it can attempt a rescue, and conditions aren't expected to improve before Wednesday, the maritime authority said. The passengers will be flown back to the Snow Dragon in groups of 12, and then transferred by barge to the Aurora.
All 52 passengers will be evacuated, but the crew on the Akademik Shokalskiy will stay behind with the ship and wait for the ice to break up naturally, expedition spokesperson Alvin Stone said.
A simple shift in the wind could free the ship. Winds from the east have been pounding the ship and pushing the ice around the vessel. A westerly wind would help break up the ice, Stone said. The trouble is, no one knows when the wind will change.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on 28 November, got stuck on Christmas Eve after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 2 700km south of Hobart, Tasmania. The ship isn't in danger of sinking, and there are weeks' worth of supplies on board, but the vessel cannot move.