The academics were on board the Russian ship Akademik Shokalskiy as part of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which was following in the footsteps of explorer Douglas Mawson, who undertook the first complete study of the region 100 years ago.
But on Christmas Eve, the vessel became surrounded in a thick pack of ice and could not move. The ship lies 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart in Tasmania.
Initial attempts to free the vessel using other icebreaking ships failed. The latest attempt by Australian ship, Aurora Australis, halted on 31 December after the rescue ship itself ran the risk of getting stuck in the ice.
The back-up plan involved airlifting the passengers to the Aurora Australis using a helicopter on board a Chinese icebreaking ship that had previously failed to reach the scientists.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), coordinating the rescue, had initially said the mission was unlikely to go ahead today. But later it tweeted that all 52 passengers were on board the Aurora Australis, apparently having been airlifted directly from the Shokalskiy. The 22-strong crew of the Shokalskiy will meanwhile remain on board the stricken vessel.
Chris Turney, leader of the expedition and professor of climate change at the University of New South Wales, said in a blog on the expedition website that some of the ice surrounding the vessel was likely to be several years old, making it “considerably more difficult” to break through using an icebreaker compared with ice formed in a single year.