Thick Antarctic ice has blocked a third ice breaker from reaching a stranded cruise ship, prompting officials to change plans today and prepare to take the passengers off the ice-bound ship by helicopter.
The decision to resort to an airlift came after Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis could only get within 10 nautical miles of the trapped vessel today before the rescue attempt was called off because winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian-crewed research vessel touring the Antarctic, has been trapped in ice since Christmas Eve.
"A decision has been reached to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members by helicopter from China's Xue Long ship, should the weather allow," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement. "According to (the captain), all the crew and other members of the expedition are in good health."
"Neither their lives nor safety are under threat," the ministry said.
The ship is carrying 74 scientists and tourists.
The chopper can only carry 15 people at a time, so it would have to make five trips to evacuate all 52.
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.
The explorers have tweeted and blogged about being marooned amid the ice and snow, assuring the public that they were well-equipped for harsh weather conditions and have continued to perform their science experiments and enjoy Christmas aboard the ship.
Icebreaking ships from Australia, France, and China had tried to get close to the Akademik Shokalskiy in order to smash the ice entrapping it, but heavy wind and snow prevented the rescue attempts from reaching the ship.
Despite being stuck for nearly a week in frigid temperatures, expedition leader Chris Turney told ABC News via Skype that loved ones at home should not be worried.
"We've got about 10 days or so of fresh food and then we're on to dehydrated rations, but we've also got the Aurora a helicopter ride away, so if it really got bad they could drop us supplies as well," Turney told ABC News.