A helicopter has begun to airlift passengers off a research ship that has been trapped in Antarctic ice for more than a week, according to expedition officials.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the first transfer of 12 passengers to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis was completed shortly after 3 a.m. ET. The helicopter on board a Chinese icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, will continue to airlift passengers from the trapped MV Akademik Shokalskiy to an ice floe next to the Australian icebreaker. Then, passengers are taking a small boat to the Aurora Australis.
"Fingers crossed this all goes smoothly and we are coming to the end of this soap opera on ice," expedition spokesman Alvin Stone told ABC News in an email before earlier today.
Before the rescue began, expedition leader Chris Turney tweeted: "The Chinese helicopter has arrived @ the Shokalskiy. It's 100% we're off! A huge thanks to all."
The 74 scientists, tourists and crew aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian-crewed research vessel touring the Antarctic, have been trapped in ice since Christmas Eve. Attempts by three ice breakers to reach the ship have been foiled by the thick ice and raging storms. Previous air rescues have been delayed because of blinding snow, strong winds and fog.
The helicopter is landing on a makeshift helipad created on ice next to the Akademik Shokalskiy. Five flights and several hours will be needed to move the passengers along with another two flights to transfer luggage and equipment, AMSA said earlier this week.
The Aurora will carry the passengers to the Australian island state of Tasmania, arriving by mid-January.
The 22 crew members are expected to remain with the vessel, according to AMSA, who is coordinating the rescue. The ship isn't in danger of sinking and has weeks' worth of supplies on board.
Passengers on the Akademik Shokalskiy have been passing the time by reading and watching movies, but everyone is taking the situation in stride.
Live footage emerged Tuesday of a group of the researchers aboard the ship ringing in 2014 by singing a song about their experience and laughing.
The ship's passengers are mostly made up of scientific researchers from Australia and New Zealand, in addition to some members of the public who signed up to accompany the scientists on a journey retracing the steps of the first exploration to Antarctica some 100 years ago.
ABC News' Gio Benitez and Mallory Thompson contributed to this report.