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'Great news': Rescue vessel within sight of explorer ship stuck in Antarctic ice

After a trip to Mawson Station, an icon of Antarctic exploration, a vessel and its scientific team from Australia became boxed in by ice. Now, all they can do is wait for an icebreaker to arrive and cut them free. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

Rescuers were finally within sight of a ship stuck in Antarctic sea ice Friday, one of the explorers on board said, three days after it became stuck on Christmas Eve.

"Great news," Professor Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales in Australia tweeted, along with a picture of the distant rescue vessel. "Icebreaker Snow Dragon on horizon with penguins! Everyone very happy!"

Russian-built MV Akademik Shokalskiy, with 74 people aboard, has been frozen in a remote part of the Antarctic some 1,700 miles south of Australia since Tuesday. A distress call from the ship was picked up Christmas morning.

Professor Chris Turney, leader of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which is traveling aboard the Shokalskiy, said the Chinese ice-breaking vessel Snow Dragon was expected to come and clear a path for them by Friday night.

"We are actually in a blizzard at the moment," Turney said in a video posted Thursday on his Twitter feed. "We have wind speeds on average of 50 kph [around 30 mph], reaching in excess of 70 kph [about 45 mph]. We're surrounded by sea ice -- we just can't get through."

As of Friday morning Australian Eastern Daylight Time (Thursday afternoon EST), he told NBC News, "most of the winds have passed and visibility is a lot better." 

Turney, who is also professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said everyone on board was safe and well.

"Spirits are really high, it's quite remarkable how well the team have pulled together," Turney said.

"We're just currently waiting for the ship to come in, but the teams are currently continuing the science program and keeping themselves busy, which is fantastic," he added. 

Later, Turney tweeted that the Snow Dragon was getting close.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokeswoman Andrea Hayward-Maher told NBC News on Tuesday: "It is a very remote location so it is not your everyday search-and-rescue mission."

The ship is 100 nautical miles east of the French Antarctic base Dumont D’Urville. But all those aboard spent Christmas Day and the day after trapped inside the ice-locked ship.

Turney said the incident was one of the risks of working in Antarctica.

"It's a classic misunderstanding, that this environment moves at glacial pace, and it's quite the reverse," he said. "It's incredibly dynamic and you just do everything you can to mitigate that risk, and sometimes nature just works against you, and in this environment it can move very, very quickly."

The 233-foot-long Russian-flagged ship sent out a distress signal, which was picked up at 7:20 a.m. Australian Eastern Daylight Time (3:20 p.m. ET Tuesday) by the Falmouth Maritime Rescue Coordination Center, in the U.K.

As the ship is in the Australian search-and-rescue region, this message was passed on to AMSA, and three ice-breaking ships are currently en route to the Shokalskiy's location.

The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper reported that two of its journalists were among those trapped aboard the vessel.

Alok Jha and Laurence Topham had been reporting as part of the Spirit of Mawson, an expedition to commemorate the centenary of an exploration by Australian geologist Douglas Mawson.

Miriam Fireston, Daniella Silva and Shanshan Dong of NBC News contributed to this report.

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