An Australian icebreaker carrying 52 passengers plucked from an icebound ship in the Antarctic is resuming its journey home after it was halted for a second potential rescue operation.
The Aurora Australis had been slowly cracking through thick ice towards open water after a Chinese ship's helicopter plucked the passengers from their stranded Russian research vessel and carried them to an ice floe near the Aurora.
But yesterday the crew of the Chinese icebreaker that had provided the helicopter said it was worried about its own ship's ability to move through the ice.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority's Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which oversaw the operation, told the Aurora to stay in the area in case help was needed.
The Aurora has now been allowed to continue its journey despite the Chinese ship Snow Dragon, or Xue Long in Chinese, remaining stuck in ice.
"The master of Xue Long has confirmed to AMSA that the ship is safe, it is not in distress and does not require assistance at this time," AMSA said.
The Aurora had been put on standby as a precaution while the Snow Dragon attempted to manoeuvre through the pack ice during optimal tidal conditions, AMSA said.
That attempt failed and the Chinese ship remains stuck several miles from the Russian icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy, from which the passengers were rescued. The Russian ship has been immobile since Christmas Eve.
"The masters of both Akademik Shokalskiy and Xue Long agree that further assistance from Aurora Australis is no longer required and they will be able to provide mutual support to each other," AMSA said.
AMSA said the Aurora had resumed its journey to Australia's Antarctic base on a resupply mission before returning to the Australian island state of Tasmania in mid-January.
The Akademik Shokalskiy, which left New Zealand on November 28, got stuck after a blizzard pushed the sea ice around the ship, freezing it in place about 1,700 miles south of Hobart, Tasmania. The scientific team on board the Russian vessel had been recreating Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's 1911 to 1913 voyage to Antarctica.
Australian Antarctic Division acting director Jason Mundy said the rescue had stretched resources for the summer research programme, which he hoped to recoup from the Russian ship's insurer.
In addition to the disruption to Australia's scientific programme, the rescue would cost taxpayers 400,000 Australian dollars (£218,000), environment minister Greg Hunt's spokesman John O'Doherty said.
"This incident is a reminder that everyone operating in the Southern Ocean ... has to put safety ahead of everything else," Mr Hunt said.