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Helicopter rescue possible for ship stuck off Antarctica

| Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, 6:09 p.m.

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 the weather permits, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday.

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

The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck in thick ice since Christmas Day. Rescue efforts took a step backward on Monday when the Australian icebreaker sent to free the ship was forced to retreat to open water.

The icebreaker Aurora Australis was buffeted by 30-mph wind and snow showers as it ground toward the research ship, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority reported.

“These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today's attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy,” the authority, which is heading the rescue effort, said in a statement.

Expedition leader Chris Turney, a professor of climate change at Australia's University of New South Wales, has been tweeting and blogging during the trip. He tweeted at 7 a.m. Monday: “Bad news: Aurora couldn't get through. Tried twice. Low visibility & heavy ice. Returning to open water. Try again tomorrow? #spiritofmawson.”

Moments later, he tweeted: “Shocking weather today. Wet & windy. Had to use tent for comms on top deck. Aladdin's Cave. In the #spiritofmawson!” The tweet included a photo of a tent secured on the deck of the cruise ship.

The authority said the icebreaker closed to within 10 miles of the cruise ship before retreating and now sits about 18 miles away. Another attempt could be made to reach the cruise ship once conditions improve, the statement said.

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

RCC Australia said it was in regular contact with the Akademik Shokalskiy, adding that the ship has supplies for two more weeks and that everyone aboard was reported to be safe.

The passengers include 52 tourists, scientists and explorers — most of them Australians — along with 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 Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.

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

The search and rescue operation began on Christmas morning when Britain's Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre 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 this area.

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