31 Dec 2013

Wait may be nearly over for ship's passengers

9:33 pm on 31 December 2013

Passengers stranded on a Russian research ship in thick ice near Antarctica will finally be rescued by helicopter on Wednesday if there is a break in difficult weather conditions.

The Akademic Shokalskiy carrying 54 scientists, tourists and journalists, including six New Zealanders, and 22 crew has been stranded near Commonwealth Bay, about 1500 nautical miles south of Tasmania, since 24 December when it made a distress call.

MV Akademik Shokalskiy stuck in the ice off East Antarctica.

MV Akademik Shokalskiy stuck in the ice off East Antarctica. Photo: AFP Andrew Peacock / www.footloosefotography.com

Chinese and Australian ice-breakers the Xue Long and the Aurora Australis have tried to get to the ship three times but have been hampered by the ice and bad weather.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is co-ordinating the rescue and on Tuesday decided that a helicopter on the Xue Long will make an attempt to collect the passengers from a makeshift helipad on an ice sheet. The 22 crew will remain on the ship.

John Young, the general manager of the authority's emergency response division, said the passengers would be taken to the Xue Long and then by barge to the Aurora Australis.

However, he said there needs to be a quiet patch in the weather and the timing of the complex rescue must be co-ordinated and correct.

Mr Young said a time for when the helicopter will attempt a rescue cannot be confirmed, as it is reliant on the conditions.

The Akademic Shokalskiy ship left New Zealand on 28 November this year on a private expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson and is well stocked with food.

The BBC's Andrew Luck Baker is on board and said on Tuesday they are all ready to leave, but aren't sure when this will happen.

"We're just going to have to wait for the cloud to clear and possibly for the winds to abate a little bit. But the mood on the ship is pretty good."

Expedition leader Chris Turney admitted that people are starting to feel a bit nervous but said briefings are held twice a day, which is helping with morale.

The passengers are not expected to arrive in Australia for a couple of weeks following the rescue.