The stranded passengers aboard a research ship stuck in sea ice in Antarctica are heading home, although it will be a few weeks before they dock in Hobart.
A total of 52 people were rescued in helicopter transfers to an Australian icebreaker on Thursday, with the operation taking four hours to complete.
Expedition leader Chris Turney said the scientists, tourists and journalists stuck on board the Akademik Shokalskiy since Christmas Eve had been airlifted to safety and had arrived at the rescue ship.
“We’ve made it to the Aurora australis safe & sound. A huge thanks to the Chinese & @AusAntarctic for all their hard work! #spiritofmawson.”
Passengers, many of them Australians and New Zealanders, were picked up by a helicopter from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long and transferred to the Australian Antarctic Division supply ship.
The Aurora Australis will carry the passengers to Tasmania, arriving by mid-January.
Sydneysider Joanne Sim, a paying passenger, told the Sydney Morning Herald – which has a reporter aboard the Aurora Australis – that it felt great to be off the ice.
“It really has been an emotional rollercoaster,” she said.
Sim, who cried as she boarded the Australian icebreaker, said Shokalskiy passengers had whittled away the time watching movies and playing games.
The news of the rescue came when the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) took to social media at 10.20pm (AEDT) tweeting: “Aurora Australis has advised AMSA that the 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy are now on board.”
The helicopter from the Chinese ship reached the ship around 5pm (AEDT) after several attempts were thwarted by severe weather.
The group was then moved in five flights of up to 12 passengers, with each return journey to the Xue Long some 10 nautical miles distant expected to take 45 minutes.
The Russian vessel, which left New Zealand on November 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place.
Earlier icebreaking attempts by the rescue vessels to reach the ship failed because of the thickness of the ice.
Passengers on Thursday were airlifted in relays from a makeshift landing pad on the ice beside the Russian ship and were landed on an ice floe near the Aurora Australis.