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Helicopter rescue planned for ship stranded in Antarctic

By Ralph Ellis, CNN
December 31, 2013 -- Updated 0309 GMT (1109 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Passengers preparing for New Year's Eve festivities
  • NEW: It will take at least a day for the weather to improve
  • NEW: Helicopter can pick up 12 passengers at a time
  • NEW: Barge will ferry them from Chinese ship to Australian vessel

(CNN) -- As the 74 people on a climate change research ship stuck in the ice in Antarctica readied for New Year's Eve festivities, authorities revealed plans to send in a rescue helicopter.

The Russian-flagged MV Akademik Shokalskiy has not moved in a week since getting stuck in unusually thick ice on Christmas. The people on board say they are holding up fairly well.

"The group on this ship is incredibly collegiate," said Alok Jha, a science correspondent for The Guardian newspaper, told Anderson Cooper 360. "There are a lot of skills and things people are sharing with each other."

Chris Turney, an Australian professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said there are regular briefings on the status of rescue attempts, and in the meantime, people are doing what they can to keep busy. That includes yoga and Spanish classes, Jha and Turney said.

Turney said it was raining hard Monday, and visibility was deteriorating. The forecast for the next 24 hours called for more of the same.

Officials said a helicopter from a nearby Chinese ship will be used in the airlift, but rescuers must wait for conditions to improve.

In preparation, crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy have marked a spot on the ice where the helicopter can land, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

The helicopter, which can transport 12 people each trip, will take the ship's 52 passengers -- who include the research team and journalists -- to the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. An Australian icebreaker, which tried unsuccessfully to reach the research vessel, will send a barge to pick them up.

The 22 crew members of the Akademik Shokalskiy will stay aboard, the maritime agency said.

"People are sort of seeing the end in sight and just keeping morale up," Turney told CNN. "It's New Year's Eve tonight, so there are all sorts of plans." That includes the singing of an original song written by one of the passengers and dancing, Jha said.

And there may be good spirits -- both emotional and alcoholic, Jha and Turney said.

The Akademik Shokalskiy passengers said it wasn't a bad place to be stuck. The scenery is beautiful. Penguins have been walking up to the ship and sniffing around, checking out their new neighbors.

Close, but no rescue

The 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 January 4.

The vessel got stuck in the ice 15 days after setting out on the second leg.

Turney said the ship was surrounded by ice up to nearly 10 feet (3 meters) thick.

It was about 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D'Urville, which is about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.

On Christmas morning, the ship sent a satellite distress signal after conditions failed to clear.

The Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis suspended efforts early Monday to reach the expedition because of bad weather. The ship got within 10 nautical miles but then turned back.

The attempt by the Australian icebreaker followed one by the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, which was six nautical miles from the trapped vessel when it couldn't get any closer because of the ice.

It returned to open water and remained in the area to provide support, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for the maritime authority.

CNN's Josh Levs and Jamie Crawford contributed to this report.

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