Helicopter Rescue for Stranded Antarctic Ship on Hold for Better Weather

The Akademik Shokalskiy has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week.

ByABC News
December 31, 2013, 1:03 AM

Dec. 31, 2013— -- An air rescue for the passengers aboard a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for a week will wait for a break in the weather to start airlifting people from the vessel, Australian maritime authorities say.

The 74 scientists, tourists and crew aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian-crewed research vessel touring the Antarctic, have been trapped in ice since Christmas Eve. A helicopter on board a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, will be used to collect the passengers once there is a break in the weather, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a Monday night conference call.

But the helicopter rescue must wait for a break in the weather before it can attempt a rescue, and conditions aren't expected to improve before Wednesday.

Stranded Antarctic Ship Prepares for Helicopter Rescue

"At the moment we're just dealing with each day as it comes and looking after each other and supporting each other as best we can," expedition leader Chris Turney told ABC News overnight. "It's raining at the moment. It's heavy winds. It's poor visibility, so we're not going to be flying today, possibly not even tomorrow."

In the meantime, passengers on the Akademik Shokalskiy have been passing the time by reading and watching movies, but everyone is taking the situation in stride.

"We've just discovered … a new box of coffee so we've got lots of beans. So moral has suddenly jumped back up again," Turney said with a laugh.

The decision to resort to an airlift came after Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis could only get within 10 nautical miles of the trapped vessel early Monday because of strong winds and blizzard conditions. It's the third ice breaker that has failed to tear through the Antarctic ice that is estimated to be 13 feet thick.

Research Vessel Rescue Effort Faces Tough Antarctic Conditions

All 52 passengers will be evacuated, but the crew on the Akademik Shokalskiy will stay behind with the ship and wait for the ice to break up naturally, John Young, general manager of emergency response division at AMSA said Monday night.

There's no clear timeline for when the ice will break up, but those left on board the trapped vessel have an adequate supply of resources to last "a long time," Young said.

When the rescue does occur, passengers will be transported via helicopter in groups of 12. The helicopter, Young said, will land on a makeshift helipad created on ice and shuttle back and forth. All 52 passengers will then be picked up by the Aurora Australis, which will then transport everyone to Hobart, Australia.

The rescue will probably take several hours, according to Young, and it could happen on short notice.

The ship's passengers are mostly made up of scientific researchers from Australia and New Zealand, in addition to some members of the public who signed up to accompany the scientists on a journey retracing the steps of the first exploration to Antarctica some 100 years ago.

ABC News' Colleen Curry contributed to this report.