Icebound ship passengers to be rescued by helicopter

Dec. 30, 2013 at 12:21 PM
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SYDNEY, Dec. 30 (UPI) -- A Chinese helicopter is being sent to rescue passengers and crew members aboard a Russian research ship stuck in the ice off of Antarctica, officials said.

"A decision has been made to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members by a helicopter from China's Xuelong icebreaker, if weather conditions are suitable," the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday.

RIA Novosti said about 18 people will stay aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy.

Earlier Monday, an Australian icebreaker fighting an Antarctic blizzard stopped trying to reach the ship.

"Adverse weather conditions have resulted in the Aurora Australis moving back into open water this afternoon," the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a Twitter message.

The Australis got within 10 nautical miles, or about 11.5 geographical miles, from the trapped ship before going out to open water, the agency, which is coordinating the rescue, said in a separate statement.

The Australis is the second icebreaker to try and fail to reach the ship.

The Chinese vessel the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, had to quit Saturday when it hit ice as thick as 17 feet.

Passengers aboard the 233-foot Akademik Shokalskiy, stuck in the ice off the coast of Antarctica since Christmas Eve, were told they may have to be evacuated by air, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported.

The newspaper has two reporters on the Shokalskiy.

The passengers -- made up of about 25 professors and graduate students and 20 tourists -- as well as 22 Russian crew members, are safe, Greg Mortimer, co-leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, told the Guardian.

But that could change if an iceberg began moving toward the ship, he said. The nearest icebergs were several miles away.

If one came close, the Shokalskiy would have a day or two's notice to carry out any emergency evacuation, the Guardian said.

The Shokalskiy, a 233-foot, ice-strengthened ship, got stuck in a blizzard a bit more than two weeks into a monthlong expedition to trace the steps of Australian geologist Douglas Mawson on the 102nd anniversary of his December 1911 antarctic expedition during the southernmost continent's so-called heroic age of exploration.

The ship left Bluff, New Zealand's southernmost town, Dec. 8. Bluff is the same town Mawson left Dec. 2, 1911.

Mawson also experienced a blizzard.

The ship is stuck in thick ice floes at a small, steep rocky island near Cape de la Motte, about 115 miles east of the French Antarctic scientific Dumont d'Urville Station, where the 2005 documentary "March of the Penguins" was filmed, and about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Australia, the Tasmanian capital.

The scientists and tourists sought to repeat and extend many of Mawson's wildlife and weather observations in the hope of building a picture of how parts of the Antarctic Circle have changed in the past century.

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