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Ship trapped in Antarctic ice must wait longer for rescue

SYDNEY - A Chinese icebreaker that was en route to rescue a ship trapped in Antarctic ice was forced to turn back on Saturday after being unable to push its way through the heavy sea ice.

The Snow Dragon icebreaker came within 7 miles of the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been stuck since Christmas Eve, but had to retreat after the ice became too thick, said expedition spokesman Alvin Stone.

The Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been on a research expedition to Antarctica, got stuck Tuesday after a blizzard's whipping winds pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place. The ship wasn't in danger of sinking, and there are weeks worth of supplies for the 74 scientists, tourists and crew on board, but the vessel cannot move.

Three icebreakers, including the Snow Dragon, have been trying to reach the ship since Wednesday. France's L'Astrolabe has also made it to the edge of the sea ice surrounding the ship, but will wait there with the Snow Dragon for the arrival of Australia's Aurora Australis, which has the best chance of breaking through the thick ice, Stone said. The Australian vessel is not expected to reach the area until Sunday.

"I think we're probably looking at another 24 hours of twiddling our fingers and waiting for something to happen," Stone said.

Expedition leader Chris Turney said the wait could be even longer.

"If we're fortunate the next three to four days would be absolutely fantastic but that's an optimistic view," Turney told CBS News' Bill Whitaker via Skype.

According to Turney, there’s 13 miles of ice – 7 feet thick – blocking them from open waters.  

The scientific team on board the research ship - which left New Zealand on Nov. 28 - had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's century-old voyage to Antarctica when it became trapped. They plan to continue their expedition after they are freed, Turney said.

Passengers and crew initially had to contend with blizzard conditions, including winds up to 40 miles per hour.

"The blizzard we had yesterday was quite extraordinary - it's not nice when you can feel the ship shaking," Turney told CBS News.

Despite the interruption to the expedition, the scientists have continued their research while stuck, counting birds in the area and drilling through the ice surrounding the ship to photograph sea life.

"We've got a couple of weeks' worth of fresh food, and on top of that, if things get really bad, we've got two weeks of glorious dehydrated food," Turney said. 

Those on board also managed to celebrate the holiday with a traditional Christmas feast and a "Secret Santa" gift exchange, which helped keep everyone's spirits high, he said.

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