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Helicopter rescue possible for ship stuck off Antarctica

8:25 PM, Dec 30, 2013   |    comments
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The passengers and some of the crew on a Russian-flagged research ship stranded in ice off Antarctica will be evacuated by a Chinese helicopter once weather permits, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday.

"A decision has been reached to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members (using a) helicopter from China's Xue Long (Snow Dragon) ship, should the weather allow," the ministry said in a statement.

However, a spokeswoman for the Australian authority leading the rescue effort said officials remain hopeful that an icebreaker ship will reach the MV Akademik Shokalskiy and make a helicopter rescue unnecessary.

"There is more risk with a helicopter," Lisa Martin, spokeswoman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, told USA TODAY. "The icebreaker Aurora Australis will make further attempts when the weather improves. We are looking at trying to keep that going for now."

The Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck in ice up to 10 feet thick since Christmas. Rescue efforts took a step backward Monday when the Aurora Australis was forced to retreat to open water. The icebreaker was buffeted by 30 mph winds and snow showers as it ground toward the research ship, Martin said.

"The adverse weather conditions are still limiting the effort," Martin said. "But reports from the ship are that everyone is safe and well."

Expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at Australia's University of New South Wales, tweeted Monday at 1 p.m. ET: "A disappointing day by hopefully the icebreakers well get through to us tomorrow." And minutes later: "Had a few hours sleep. Feel better. Good news: visibility improved to horizon. Wind moderate (20 knots)."

The authority said the icebreaker closed to within 12 miles of the cruise ship before retreating and now sits about 20 miles away.

The Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon came within about 8 miles of reaching the ship Saturday before turning back. It has remained in the area and is equipped with a helicopter.

Martin said rescue officials were in regular contact with the Akademik Shokalskiy, adding that the ship has supplies for two more weeks.

The ship has 52 passengers of tourists, scientists and explorers - most of them Australians -- and a crew of 22 Russians, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The ship, which left New Zealand last month, is on a research voyage to honor the 100th anniversary of the expedition of Australian scientist Douglas Mawson.

In a blog post on spiritofmawson.com, Turney wrote Monday that the group was keeping busy with scientific work as well as classes in "knot tying, languages, yoga, photography and many others."

The cruise ship, stuck about 1,500 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania, has not suffered damage. Morale remains high and passengers have ample provisions, Turney has said.

The search and rescue operation began on Christmas morning after Britain's Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Center received a distress message via satellite from the Akademik Shokalskiy.

The distress message and subsequent coordination of the incident was passed to RCC Australia, which is the search and rescue authority responsible for the area.

John Bacon, USA TODAY

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