Helicopter rescue for ice-bound ship Akademik Shokalskiy

Crew-member of Akademik Shokalskiy walk on snow-covered deck The ship became trapped on Christmas Eve, about 100 nautical miles from the French Antarctic station Dumont D'Urville

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Passengers and some crew on a ship stuck in thick ice in Antarctica are to be taken off by helicopter once the weather permits, Russian officials say.

News of the decision came after an Australian icebreaker making a fresh rescue attempt had to turn back.

The Russian-flagged research vessel Akademik Shokalskiy has been stuck in ice for nearly a week. It is carrying 74 scientists, tourists and crew.

The ship is stocked with food and is in no danger, the team on board says.

The third attempt to rescue the vessel - by Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis - failed early on Monday because of fierce winds and poor visibility.

At the scene

Morale among the scientists and research volunteers of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013 is good. A new year is fast approaching and celebrations are being prepared.

Meanwhile, expedition scientists have been deploying their instruments from the rear of the Shokalskiy - the science continues.

We are also packing our bags because we've been told to be ready for our helicopter evacuation. At the moment, low cloud makes it too risky for the helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, to land next to us.

But when the cloud lifts, a hefty Chinese helicopter will land next to us and ferry us in groups of 15 to the ice edge close to the Aurora. We will then be transferred across clear water to the Australian icebreaker.

As for the Russian crew, most will stay on board the Shokalskiy for what could be weeks until the ice has weakened enough for an icebreaker to break through. A huge US icebreaker, the Polar Star, should be in the area in a week to 10 days. We were told that the Polar Star can slice through sea ice six metres thick.

Earlier attempts by Chinese and French icebreakers to reach the ship were also foiled by the thick ice.

The Shokalskiy was trapped on Christmas Eve by thick sheets of ice, driven by strong winds, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania.

'Snow showers'

"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," a Russian foreign ministry statement said on Monday.

However, the BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker, who is on the Shokalskiy, said that at this morning's briefing they discovered that they would stay on the ship at least until the New Year because of bad weather.

Also, the remaining crew members will stay on board until another, more powerful US icebreaker arrived in up to 10 days' time, he says.

Earlier the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said: "The area where the MV Akademik Shokalskiy is beset by ice is currently 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 [Monday's] attempt to assist the MV Akademik Shokalskiy."

The Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon, came within seven nautical miles (11 km) of the Russian ship before stalling and being forced to return to the open sea.

The Akademik Shokalskiy is being used by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition to follow the route explorer Douglas Mawson travelled a century ago.

Despite being trapped, the scientists have continued their experiments, measuring temperature and salinity through cracks in the surrounding ice.

Those on board include 22 Russian crew. Passengers are of various nationalities, many of them Australian.

A crew member on the ship has recorded a video diary

One of the leaders of the scientific expedition said via Skype that those on board were in good spirits and wanted their families and friends to know they were safe and well, AFP reported.

"It's Antarctica, we are just taking it one day at a time," said Chris Turney, professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales.

"The conditions are so extreme in Antarctica, you just never know. We are always hopeful."

Akademik Shokalskiy 30/12/2013 - image provided by Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography The Shokalskiy is stocked with food and the passengers were in no danger, the team on board said
Chinese icebreaker Xue Long in an aborted effort to reach the Shokalskiy 28 December 2013 A Chinese icebreaker failed to reach the Shokalskiy on Saturday
An inquisitive penguin next to the stranded ship Akademik Shokalskiy, 28 December 2013 Passengers could potentially be winched to safety by a helicopter when the weather improves
View from the ship - image from BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker on board The Shokalskiy is trapped about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart - the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania

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