After 10 days stranded far from home, all 52 passengers from a ship stuck in Antarctic ice have now been transferred by helicopter to an Australian icebreaker.
“It’s 100% we’re off! A huge thanks to all,” tweeted Chris Turney, an Australian professor among the group of scientists, journalists and tourists marooned on the ship.
A helicopter from a nearby Chinese icebreaker ferried passengers Thursday to the Australian icebreaker, the Aurora Australis.
The rescue is the latest chapter in a saga that began Christmas Eve after the Russian-flagged MV Akademik Shokalskiy got stuck in unusually thick ice.
Officials abandoned a succession of other rescue attempts in recent days because of the treacherous conditions in the region.
Earlier Thursday, Australian authorities had said a plan involving the helicopter and a barge was put on hold because of shifting ice conditions.
But the new approach, which skipped the use of the barge, got under way later in the day. Turney posted videos showing the helicopter arriving on a makeshift helipad on the ice near the trapped ship and taking off into the crisp blue sky.
Robert Darvill, chief mate on the Aurora Australis, told CNN that the 52 new passengers on board were very happy to be there and kept thanking the icebreaker’s crew for their efforts.
“They are on their second dinner of the night right now,” he said.
Long journey ahead
It will still be weeks before the research team makes it to the Australian port of Hobart, said John Young of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
“Mid-January is our best guess,” Young told reporters on a conference call. The Aurora Australis is still expected to complete a resupply mission to Casey Station, an Australian base in Antarctica, before making its way to Hobart.
Darvill said that now all the passengers are on the Aurora Australis, the vessel will try to move out of the heavy pack ice and into more open water.
But, he said, they will not set off toward Casey Station until the Rescue Coordination Center of Australia gives them the green light.
Darvill also thanked the captain of the Chinese icebreaker whose help made the rescue possible.
“Thank you very much for your cooperation. Your crew has done the lion’s share of the work and made Australia and much of the world proud,” he said.
Meanwhile, the master of the Akademik Shokalskiy has decided to keep the 22 Russian crew members on board the stranded ship until the pack ice eventually breaks up and allows it to move again, Young said.
The vessel has enough supplies to keep the crew going for “a very long time,” he said.
The helicopter rescue followed a failed attempt by the Chinese icebreaker, the Xue Long, which made it 6 nautical miles from the trapped vessel before being stopped by especially thick ice.
That was followed by an effort by the Australian icebreaker, which was forced Monday to suspend efforts to reach the expedition because of bad weather. The Aurora Australis got within 10 nautical miles of the ship before it turned back.
Over the weekend, the maritime agency called off an effort by the French icebreaker Astrolabe.
The exploits of the research crew have gone viral, thanks in large part to Twitter and YouTube posts by those aboard the stranded vessel.
Turney, the leader of a research expedition on the Akademik Shokalskiy, has tweeted photos of the stranded ship, the crew and penguins, which have stopped by to check out their new neighbors.
The group even managed to ring in 2014 with good cheer.
“We’re the A, A, E who have traveled far, having fun doing science in Antarctica!” a dozen or so of them sang in a video posted on YouTube. “Lots of snow and lots of ice, lots of penguins, which are very, very nice!
“Really good food and company, but a bloody great shame we are still stuck here! Ice core, cha cha cha! Ice core, cha cha cha!”
Turney’s 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 Saturday.
The vessel got stuck in the ice 15 days after setting out on the second leg.