2 Jan 2014

Passengers finally off boat in Antarctic

10:24 pm on 2 January 2014

The rescue mission to evacuate 52 passengers on board a Russian research ship stuck in Antarctic waters finally began on Thursday, a week after a distress call was made on Christmas Eve.

The research ship has been stuck since Christmas Eve.

The research ship has been stuck since Christmas Eve. Photo: AFP / AFP Andrew Peacock / www.footloosefotography.com

The Akademik Shokalskiy left New Zealand on 28 November this year on a private expedition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.

Two ice-breakers from China and Australia made three unsuccessful attempts to get to the ship before it was decided to airlift the passengers, including six people from New Zealand.

Thursday's operation was nearly called off before the weather improved.

The scientists and tourists are being picked up 12 at a time and flown by helicopter to the Chinese ice-breaker Xue Long a few nautical miles away.

Once there, they are travelling by barge to the Australian ice-breaker Aurora Australis, which is waiting on the edge of the ice to take them to Hobart in Tasmania, expected to take a fortnight.

Twitter accounts of those on board the Akademik Shokalskiy show there have been at least two helicopter trips by 10pm on Thursday (NZ time).

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority is coordinating the rescue and said it is expected to take at least five hours and is dependent on the weather.

The 22 crew are expected to remain on the stranded ship. All passengers are said to be safe and well.