SYDNEY (AFP) - 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 on 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 (18.52 km) 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.
Chris Turney, one of the leaders of the scientific expedition, said via Skype from the stranded ship that those on board were in good spirits and wanted their families and friends to know they were safe and well.
"It's Antarctica, we are just taking it one day at a time," he said.
"The conditions are so extreme in Antarctica, you just never know. We are always hopeful."
Turney, who is professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said satellite images indicated that their vessel had become stuck in ice which had broken away from a glacier.
The fierce winds had pushed it into an area of normally open sea, blocking the ship's progress, and this ice was now three to four metres thick in some places, although in others there were gaps with no ice.
"It's an unusual event that's happened," he said.
"We were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Turney had earlier tweeted that cracks were developing in the ice around the bow of the ship, something he hoped would help free the vessel.
The team onboard has been carrying out the same scientific experiments which Mawson's group conducted during the 1911-1914 expedition in the hope they could help in climate change research.
Several members of the team have already battled sea ice to reach the historic Mawson's Huts - built and occupied by the 1911-1914 expedition - which have been isolated for years by a giant iceberg.