Sydney — Most passengers and some crew from a scientific expedition ship stranded off Antarctica will be evacuated by helicopter to a Chinese icebreaker if weather conditions improve, Russia said Monday.
Authorities decided to resort to the helicopter evacuation after the Aurora Australis rescue icebreaker was forced to retreat in the face of freezing winds and snow showers 10 nautical miles from the Russian-flagged MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which is stuck in an ice field.
Thick ice had earlier prevented both the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and a French icebreaker from reaching the stranded crew.
"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.
The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck on an ice field since last week with 74 people on board. The multinational passenger list includes scientists as well as tourists and crew.
Earlier Monday, the Australian Maritime Authority said the area where the ship was trapped was experiencing winds of up to 30 knots and snow showers.
"These weather conditions have resulted in poor visibility and made it difficult and unsafe for the Aurora Australis to continue today's attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy."
The authority also said earlier Monday it was "unsafe to attempt to launch the helicopter from the Chinese vessel" given the weather, but further rescue attempts could be made once the weather improves.
Australia's rescue coordination centre is in regular contact with the ship, which has been stationary 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D'Urville since December 24.
Its passengers, who had been following in the Antarctic footsteps of Australian Sir Douglas Mawson and his 1911-1914 expedition, remain safe and well on their well-provisioned vessel, the safety authority said.