Australian icebreaker to the rescue

A rescue icebreaker was expected to reach a ship trapped by ice in the Antarctic with 74 people on board, including six New Zealanders, early today.

The Russian explorer vessel Akademik Shokalskiy has been marooned in ice 3000km southwest of Bluff since Christmas Day.

Chinese icebreaker Xue Long got within 6.1 nautical miles, close enough to be visible on the horizon from the stricken ship, but abandoned the rescue after striking heavy ice.

A second rescue vessel, the French-flagged icebreaker L'Astrolabe, was released from the rescue operation yesterday.

Only one ship, the Australian Antarctic Division icebreaker Aurora Australis, rated at being able to push through ice slightly deeper than 1m thick, is still making its way to Akademik Shokalskiy.

Aurora Australis was about 100 nautical miles from the trapped ship at 4pm (NZT) yesterday, and was due to arrive about 1am today (NZT), the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said in a statement.

It was the last ship in the area that would be able to help, the Australian Associated Press reported.

''It is making good progress and once it arrives ... it will assess whether it is capable of making its way to the Akademik or whether we need to look at other options,'' AMSA spokeswoman Lisa Martin said.

Xue Long, which has a helicopter on board, has remained in the area to help with a rescue if required.

It could transfer some people on to its own vessel, and others on to Aurora Australis, Ms Martin said.

Aurora Australis can accommodate up to 80 additional people and has large supplies of food and fuel.

Where the people would be taken once it was lifted off the ice was yet to be determined.

That decision would be made by the ship's master, in consultation with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Ms Martin said.

''We won't be able to say until we get them on board and assess their needs.''

Akademik Shokalskiy left Bluff on December 8 on an expedition led by scientists from the University of New South Wales.

The stranded ship was retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's 1911 Antarctic expedition when it became trapped.

Among the stranded passengers are six New Zealanders - ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson, University of Auckland doctoral student Colin Tan, historians John and Barbara Tucker, and two chefs.

The 74 people on board are reported to be safe and in high spirits.

Janet Rice, an Australian Green party politician who has been on board since the ship left New Zealand, told a Guardian newspaper journalist who is also on board: ''I understand why people might be concerned, but the feeling today on board the ship is like a summer holiday when the weather is bad, when you're stuck inside reading books and playing Scrabble.

''We've been assured that we're in no danger and it's just a matter of waiting.''

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