Xue Long
The view from the first icebreaker, Xue Long, as it attempted to free the stranded Russian ship in Antarctica. Australian Maritime Safety Authority

The rescue operation for MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian ship that has been stranded in Antarctic sea ice since Dec. 25 with scientists and tourists on board, is finally under way.

Reportedly, two groups of passengers have already been evacuated by helicopter to the Aurora Australis, an Australian vessel, which will eventually take them out of Antarctic waters. A confirmation of the beginning of the rescue operation was also made by one of the passengers on board -- Chris Turney, an Australian professor who is among the 52 people aboard the trapped ship.

“The Chinese helicopter has arrived @ the Shokalskiy. It’s 100% we’re off! A huge thanks to all,” Turney tweeted, following it up with another update when he tweeted: “The first of the helicopters to take us home. Thanks everyone.”

“Take off! Second team gone,” Turney tweeted after the second batch of passengers were lifted off to safety.

According to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, or AMSA, the helicopter involved in the operation can transport 12 people in each trip with a total of seven flights. The first five flights will rescue the passengers and the remaining two will help transport luggage and equipment.

The Aurora will carry the passengers to the Australian port of Hobart in Tasmania, and is expected to arrive there by mid-January, according to John Young of the AMSA, CNN reported.

According to AMSA, the original plan was to airlift the passengers from the Shokalskiy to a Chinese vessel called the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, where a barge would ferry them to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis nearby. However, shifting ice conditions prevented the barge from reaching the Xue Long.

The Xue Long was being used as a helicopter was unable to land on the Aurora due to load-rating restrictions, and AMSA had said earlier that the operation would be delayed until alternative measures could be taken to complete the operation. A last-minute change in plans involved avoiding the use of a barge for the rescue, and instead, flying the passengers from the Russian ship directly to an ice floe adjacent to the Aurora Australis.

AMSA reported that all 22 crew members will stay on board until the ice breaks and the Russian-flagged Shokalskiy can sail on under her own stream through the ice.