Australian authorities on Saturday dismissed reports that a Chinese icebreaker that failed to reach a polar research vessel trapped in Antarctic ice since Christmas was also icebound.

The Snow Dragon came within 12 kilometres of the Russian-flagged MV Akademik Shokalskiy but had to pull back for its own safety.

“No, it’s not stuck,” Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokesperson Lisa Martin said. “It’s free to move and go wherever it wants. It can’t go further ahead but it can go back or wherever.” She also said French icebreaker L’Astrolabe was unlikely to make any better progress and had no helicopter on board, so it was released from rescue duties.

The remaining rescue ship, Australia’s Aurora Australis, is expected to reach the site, about 2,500 kilometres south of Hobart, Tasmania, on Sunday.

If it fails to get through the ice, the next scenario would be for the passengers and crew of the Shokalskiy to be taken off by the Snow Dragon’s helicopter and eventually transferred to the Aurora Australia polar re-supply vessel.

“There’ll be a lot of factors involved in getting that to happen,” Ms. Martin said. “Yes, it should be possible in due course if it’s necessary. If the Aurora Australis can’t make it through the ice then we’d be looking at providing air assistance.” The Finnish-built Shokalskiy got stuck on Tuesday with 48 passengers and around 20 crew on board. 26 of the passengers are tourists paying for the privilege of joining in the expedition and the remainder are Australian scientists.

It was just two kilometres from open water when a blizzard swept through on Christmas Eve. Since then a further 20 kilometres of sea ice has packed in.

Chris Turney, who is leading the expedition, said on Twitter that the spirits of the 54 people on board were high and that he hoped to complete the voyage once his ship was freed.

“Sorry to report the Snow Dragon couldn’t get through but standing by for other vessel to help,” Mr. Turney tweeted.

The scientists are updating the records that Australian polar explorer Douglas Mawson made 100 years ago. They left from New Zealand in November and were expected to sail back there January.

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