Illawarra explorers near Antarctica to be evacuated by helicopter

Passengers and crew stranded on a Russian scientific expedition ship trapped off Antarctica will be taken off the boat by helicopter once it stops raining, the expedition leader says.

Thick ice, freezing winds and now rain have delayed the rescue after the ship became stuck on Christmas Eve.

On Tuesday morning, Illawarra scientist Chris Turney, who is leading the expedition, said the 52 passengers on board the Akademik Shokalskiy would be flown out by helicopter after it stopped raining.

University of Wollongong historian Ben Maddison is also on the voyage.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said all 22 crew members are expected to remain on board.

Authorities decided to resort to the helicopter evacuation after the Aurora Australis rescue ice-breaker was forced to retreat in the face of freezing 30 knot winds and snow showers 10 nautical miles from the Shokalskiy.

RAW VIDEO: Watch the icebreaker Aurora Australis at work as it tries to rescue the ship Akademik Shokalskiy, stuck in Antarctic sea ice.

Thick ice had earlier prevented the Chinese ice-breaker Xue Long and a French ice-breaker from reaching the stranded crew.

"Aurora can't make it through. Looks like we're going to be helicoptered out. Just need a clear weather window. Raining!," Professor Turney posted just before noon (AEDT) on Tuesday.

The helicopter on the Xue Long will be used to rescue the passengers, but the mission is unlikely to be considered until the weather starts improving on Wednesday.

The current location of the vessels involved. Courtesy Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

A landing area for the helicopter has been marked on the ice near the Akademik Shokalskiy.

The passengers are expected to be rescued in groups of 12 and will initially be taken to the Xue Long before being transferred to the Aurora.

British journalist Alok Jha, who is aboard the Academik Shokalskiy, said the passengers were waiting for the weather to clear so they could be rescued.

He said members of the expedition were busying themselves stamping out a helipad on the ice near the stricken ship.

Professor Turney, of the University of NSW, posted a blog on Monday saying it had been a "sobering week".

Professor Chris Turney.

"The winds have eased slightly but at times have reached in excess of 70 kilometres an hour," Professor Turney wrote.

"At the time we were initially caught by the sea ice, the Shokalskiy was just 2 to 4 nautical miles from open water.

"Now the sea ice distance has become even greater with the continued winds from the east, putting our nearest point of exit at some 16 nautical miles."

Polar expert Howard Whelan, who has led about 50 expeditions to Antarctica, including some on the Shokalskiy, said the ship would most likely be stocked with provisions to last the whole summer.

Dr Ben Maddison.

"It's human nature for people to feel stressed when there's uncertainty but I think they're doing a great job trying to keep people occupied," Mr Whelan said.

He said the landscape was "exciting and intimidating".

"When you enter the pack ice, you enter a different world," Mr Whelan said.

"You enter this sublime world where it's quite calm and you've got beautiful ice around there and a lot of wildlife.

"You've got penguins walking around the ship."

Video diary of Erik Van Sebille on board the Akademik Shokalskiy. Posted on December 31.

The ship had been undertaking the Spirit of Mawson voyage, retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition.

Professor Turney has said morale remains high on the ship as passengers and crew continue their work as best they can and distract themselves with yoga, photography and language classes.


With Michael Hopkin

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