THE rescue of 52 passengers stranded for eight days in Antarctic sea ice began late yesterday, despite earlier concerns the rescue ship itself may have been iced in.
The Russian-flagged MV Akademik Shokalskiy set off from New Zealand with 74 people aboard on December 9 and has been stuck in pack ice since Christmas Day.
Chinese Vessel Xue Long has been standing by at the edge of the pack ice since last Friday, after it failed to break through, and yesterday sent its helicopter to begin picking up the passengers.
Expedition leader, University of New South Wales Professor of Climate Change Chris Turner, tweeted the arrival of the helicopter at 5.30pm.
"The Chinese helicopter has arrived (at) the Shokalskiy. It's 100% we're off!" Professor Turner said.
A video uploaded to YouTube shows the rescue teams arriving.
"It's great to see them and hear about all the hard work the Australian Antarctic Division's icebreaker (the Aurora Australis) has been doing on our behalf," Professor Turner wrote on Youtube.
"The helicopter team seem happy and just heard it is 100 per cent certain the first of four (Australian Antarctic Expedition) teams is off in the hour!
"Thanks so much for everyone's help and support."
The 22 crew members plan to stay aboard.
The rescue appeared unlikely on Wednesday afternoon, after the Australian Maritime Safety Authority reported that the sea ice conditions prevented icebreaker Aurora Australis, which is to carry the Akademik passengers back to Hobart, from approaching the Xue Long.
AMSA said the new plan was for passengers to be flown via helicopter to an ice-flow next to the Aurora Australis, where they would be picked up by the Australian ship.