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Helicopter rescue planned for stranded Antarctic ship

By Ralph Ellis

(CNN) — Most of the 74 people aboard a Russian research ship stuck in the frozen Antarctic may be airlifted out, Russia said on Monday.

A Chinese helicopter plans to evacuate 52 passengers and four crew members aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

An Australian icebreaker on Monday suspended efforts to reach the expedition because of bad weather. The Aurora Australis got within 10 nautical miles, but then turned back.

The Akademik Shokalskiy has not moved since issuing a distress signal on Christmas, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

“The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers,” the maritime authority said Monday.

“These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue. … Further attempts may be made by the vessel in due course to undertake the rescue once weather conditions improve,” the maritime authority said.

The nearby Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, carries a helicopter.

The stranded vessel is in regular contact with Australian authorities and those aboard are reported to be in good spirits and have supplies for several weeks.

A U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Polar Star, is in the general area but would likely take two weeks to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy.

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Paul Rhynard said the Polar Star has not been asked to help.

Second attempt by an icebreaker

The expedition to gauge the effects of climate change on the region began on November 27. The second and current leg of the trip started on December 8 and was scheduled to conclude with a return to New Zealand on January 4.

The vessel got stuck in the ice 15 days after setting out on the second leg.

Chris Turney, an Australian professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said the ship was surrounded by ice up to nearly 10 feet (3 meters) thick.

It was about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D’Urville, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.

On Christmas morning, the ship sent a satellite distress signal after conditions failed to clear.

The attempt by the Aurora Australis followed one by the Xue Long which was six nautical miles from the trapped vessel when it couldn’t get any closer because of unusually thick ice.

It returned to open water and remained in the area to provide support, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for the maritime authority.

Li Mingjian, network engineer on the Xue Long, told CNN on Monday the ship was stuck in ice and waiting for the weather to clear.

‘Magical winter wonderland’

Akademik Shokalskiy passengers have given mostly positive updates via YouTube, greeting family members and saying they’re having a great time.

“It’s absolutely spectacular here; it’s like this magical winter wonderland,” a passenger declares in a video, as she waves her arms to point out the vast expanse of snow and a foggy sky.

The group continues to do research and find activities to stay occupied, but there is growing concern that blizzard conditions could worsen over the coming days, according to Turney.

“The vessel is fine, it’s safe and everyone on board is very well,” he said. “Morale is really high.”

CNN’s Josh Levs and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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