Passengers from a ship that has been stuck in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve have been airlifted to safety in a five-hour rescue mission.

The Akademik Shokalskiy had been retracing Sir Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition and conducting scientific research before sea ice stopped it in its tracks.

Over the past nine days, poor weather has forced several air and sea rescue attempts to be abandoned.

Rescuers took advantage of calmer winds and improved visibility on Thursday, and a Chinese helicopter reached the stricken vessel in the afternoon.

Icebound research vessel map

The research ship Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped on Dec. 24 about 185 km east of the French Antarctic station Dumont D'Urville — about 2,800 km south of Hobart, Tasmania. (CBC/Google Maps)

The group of 52 scientists and tourists were flown to the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis in an operation that took almost five hours.

"I think everyone is relieved and excited to be going on to the Australian icebreaker and then home," expedition leader Chris Turney told The Associated Press by satellite phone from the Antarctic.

All 22 Russian crew members stayed with the icebound vessel, which is not in danger of sinking and has weeks' worth of supplies on board. They will wait until the ice that surrounds the ship breaks up.

The BBC's Andrew Luck-Baker, who was on board the Akademik Shokalskiy, says the first stop for the rescue ship is Casey Station just outside the Antarctic circle.

Antarctica Icebound Ship

Passengers from the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy link arms and stamp out a helicopter landing site on the ice near the trapped ship 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Australia. (Andrew Peacock/Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography/The Associated Press)

"We are right by the open water. We shouldn't have any problems getting through now," he said.

"We have got an approximately four day voyage ahead of us towards the west to an Australian Antarctic base called Casey."

He says the successful rescue mission came as a surprise.

"At one point we were thinking, we've had many false dawns and we were wondering whether we were in for a wait for at least another week," he said.

Sydney-based expedition spokesman, Alvin Stone, says the group is relieved.

"Aside from the packing madness, I think there's quite a bit of joy through the ship at the fact that it's finally coming," he said.  

Akademik Shokalskiy

Passengers aboard the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been trapped in Antarctic ice for more than a week, are in the process of being rescued by helicopter. (Andrew Peacock/Australasian Antarctic Expedition/Footloose Fotography/Associated Press)

"I think it was at that point where people were getting frustrated with what was going on.

"Now at last feel they can move on and the expedition can continue what it was supposed to do, or actually just get home to be perfectly honest."

Rescuers had initially planned to use the chopper to ferry the passengers in small groups back to the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon).

From there, a barge would be used to transfer them to the Aurora Australis.

However, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) later announced the group would instead be flown directly to the Australian vessel.

AMSA has said the passengers are not likely to make it back to Hobart until mid-January.

The agency will not make further comment on the rescue effort until Friday morning. 

With files from The Associated Press