This image taken by passenger Andrew Peacock of www.footloosefotography.com on December 29, 2013 shows a thin fresh coat of snow on the trapped ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy as it waited to be rescued. (Photo by Andrew Peacock/AFP/Getty Images)
The 52 passengers on a Russian-flagged research ship stranded in ice off Antarctica since Christmas Eve were evacuated by helicopter to an Australian icebreaker ship Thursday.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which led the rescue efforts, said a helicopter from a Chinese icebreaker shuttled the passengers in groups of 12 to an ice floe. The passengers then were taken by small boat to the Aurora Australis.
"Aurora Australis has advised AMSA that the 52 passengers from the Akademik Shokalskiy are now on board," the authority tweeted at about 6 a.m. ET.
The helicopter came from the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), which along with the Aurora had tried for days without success to reach the Akademik Shokalskiy. The Aurora now will shuttle the passengers on a two-week trip to the Australian island state of Tasmania.
"We've made it to the Aurora australis safe & sound. A huge thanks to the Chinese & @AusAntarctic for all their hard work!," tweeted Expedition leader Chris Turney.
The Akademik Shokalskiys passengers were tourists, scientists and explorers - most of them Australians. The ship, with a crew of 22 Russians, left New Zealand Nov. 28 on a research voyage to honor the 100th anniversary of the expedition of Australian scientist Douglas Mawson.
The crew was not airlifted and will continue efforts to free the ship from ice more than 10-feet thick in some places. The cruise ship, stuck about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania, was not damaged and the ship had ample provisions.
Turney, a professor of climate change at Australia's University of New South Wales, wrote in a blog posts that morale had remained high and that the group kept busy with scientific work as well as classes in "knot tying, languages, yoga, photography and many others."
The search and rescue operation began on Christmas morning after Britain's Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Center received a distress message via satellite from the Akademik Shokalskiy.
The distress message and subsequent coordination of the incident was passed to RCC Australia, which is AMSA's search and rescue authority responsible for the area. High winds, rain, snow, fog and the ice conspired to thwart efforts to use icebreaker ships to free the research vessel.
Turney had hoped to continue the trip if an icebreaker managed to free the ship. Despite his disappointment over the expedition being cut short, he said his spirits remained high.
"I'm a bit sad it's ended this way," he said. "But we got lots and lots of great science done."
By John Bacon