(January 2, 2014, 5:00 a.m. EST) -- The first of 52 passengers who have been stranded onboard a research vessel in the Antarctic are being airlifted to safety by a helicopter from a Chinese ship today (January 2). The helicopter has managed to land in a safe spot on thick ice nearby the trapped MV Akademik Shokalskiy expedition ship, and begun ferrying passengers to the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. The whole operation is expected to take as long as five hours, as each flight takes 45 minutes and five flights may be needed. The passengers are being transferred to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis, and are not expected back in Tasmania until mid-January.
(December 31st, 2013, 11:20 a.m. EST) – Passengers onboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy expedition ship that has been trapped in thick ice near Antarctica since Christmas Day are awaiting rescue by helicopter after three icebreaking ships failed in their attempts to rescue reach the ship.
In a strange twist, the BBC reports that one of the ships sent as part of the rescue mission might, itself, be now be stuck. BBC reporter Andrew Luck-Baker is onboard MV Akademik Shokalskiy.
The Chinese icebreaker, Xue Long, was the first ship to arrive on the scene and got as close as eight miles to MV Akademik Shokalskiy before retreating. But reports say the icebreaker has barely moved in a day and might also be stuck in ice.
Xue Long's helicopter is set be used to rescue the stranded passengers, but according to the BBC, the planned evacuation requires that the two icebreakers in the area –- the Xue Long and an Australian icebreaker – be along side one another in open water at the time of the rescue.
The Australian ship, Aurora Australis, will try to carve through the ice to help the Xue Long. Should the Chinese icebreaker break free and weather conditions clear up, the 52 passengers and a handful of the Russian crew will be ferried from the expedition ship to the Xue Long. They would then transferred by boat to the Aurora Australis, which would take them to Australia's Antarctic base at Casey.
If the Xue Long can't be cleared of ice, the airlift can't occur. Polar Star, a more powerful U.S.-based icebreaker, is expected to reach the expedition ship in another 10 days.
MV Akademik Shokalskiy is stocked with plenty of food and passengers aren't in any immediate danger.
--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor