A helicopter has rescued all 52 passengers from the research ship trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve after weather conditions finally cleared.
The chopper carried the scientists and tourists from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalski in groups of 12 to an Australian icebreaker, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which oversaw the rescue.
The Aurora Australis will now take the passengers to Tasmania, a journey expected to last two weeks.
“I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home,” expedition leader Chris Turney said by satellite phone.
All 22 crew members stayed with their icebound vessel, which is not in danger of sinking and has weeks’ worth of supplies on board. They will wait until the ice breaks up.
The eagerly anticipated rescue came after days of failed attempts to reach the vessel. Blinding snow, strong winds, fog and thick sea ice forced rescuers to turn back time and again.
Three icebreakers were dispatched to try to crack their way through the ice surrounding the ship, but all failed. The Aurora came within 20km (12 miles) of the ship on Monday, but fierce winds and snow forced it to retreat to open water.
Yesterday it appeared that the weather had thwarted yet another attempt. The helicopter was originally going to airlift the passengers to a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, with a barge then ferry them to the Aurora. But sea ice prevented the barge from reaching the Snow Dragon, and the maritime authority said the operation would have to be delayed.
A last-minute change in plans allowed the rescue to go ahead. The passengers were instead flown to an ice floe next to the Aurora and then taken by a small boat to the Australian ship, Mr Turney said.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on November 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 2,700km (1,700 miles) south of Hobart, Tasmania. The scientific team on board had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica.