By Lincoln Feast and Maggie Lu Yueyang
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Passengers and crew aboard a Russian ship trapped for eight days in ice off Antarctica planned to ring in the New Year with dinner, drinks and song as they waited for a break in a blizzard to allow a Chinese helicopter to rescue them.
But they can't party too hard because the rescue could come at any minute.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, trapped since December 24 about 100 nautical miles east of a French Antarctic station, Dumont D'Urville, and about 1,500 nautical miles south of Tasmania, welcomes the New Year at 1100 GMT, two hours ahead of Sydney.
It was not possible to contact the ship immediately thanks to patchy communications in one of the coldest and remotest places on Earth, but the plan was for passengers to congregate in the bar and sing a song about their adventure.
Revelries were to be kept in check in case passengers and crew had to leave at any moment if the snow and wind cleared.
"Tonight's celebrations have been tempered by the knowledge that we will definitely be getting helicoptered off, basically at the earliest opportunity, once the weather improves," Andrew Peacock, the expedition's doctor, said by satellite telephone.
"The camaraderie has been great but it is all a bit of a shame for it to end this way. We know a lot of other people are working incredibly hard to get us out of here."
The ship left New Zealand on November 28 on a private expedition marking the 100th anniversary of an Antarctic journey led by famed Australian explorer Douglas Mawson.
A helicopter on board a nearby Chinese icebreaker was on standby after an Australian icebreaker on Monday failed to reach the ship, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said on Tuesday.
Rescuers planned to move all of the 52 passengers from the ship to the Chinese vessel, the Snow Dragon, with most crew expected to stay on the Russian ship, AMSA said.
The Chinese ship got within sight of the Akademik Shokalskiy on Saturday, but turned back after failing to break the ice, which was more than 3 meters (10 feet) deep in places.
Passengers will be transferred from the Snow Dragon to Australia's Antarctic supply ship, the Aurora Australis.
With 24 hours of daylight, passengers have been told the evacuation could start at any time.
"Weather conditions are unlikely to start improving until tomorrow and decisions related to carrying out the rescue may be made at short notice," AMSA said on Tuesday.
The 74 people on board the Akademik Shokalskiy include scientists and tourists, many of them Australian, and 22 Russian crew.
Expedition leader Chris Turney said the week had been "sobering" but morale was good.
While it has been impossible to break the pack ice outside, the ice has been broken on board with birthday celebrations, singing and art classes. There is enough fresh food on board for two weeks.
"We are all keeping busy, with twice daily briefings outlining all the information we have to hand, alongside classes through the day (knot tying, languages, yoga, photography and many others) while the science program has continued as best we can," Turney said on a blog for the expedition (http://www.spiritofmawson.com/)
(Editing by Nick Macfie and Robert Birsel)
- Akademik Shokalskiy