Passengers on ice-bound Antarctic ship await helicopter rescue

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 paralyzed vessel, officials said 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 12 miles 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 coordinating 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.

"The idea would be that the helicopter would fly from Snow Dragon, evacuate people to the Aurora icebreaker, and from there they'd go to Casey, the Australian Antarctic base," said lead scientist and expedition leader Chris Turney, who spoke to CBS News via Skype. 

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 spokesman 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 Nov. 28, got stuck on Christmas Eve after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles 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.

The scientific team on board had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's century-old voyage to Antarctica and Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship. The looming helicopter rescue means the expedition will have to be cut short, Stone said.

Still, those on board appeared to be taking it all in stride.

"Surprisingly, all the passengers seem to be considering it the adventure of a lifetime," Stone said.

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