Help near for ship stuck in Antarctic

Three icebreakers are en route to Antarctica to help free a vessel carrying 74 people, including four Kiwis, which is stranded in thick sheets of ice.

The MV Akademik Shokalskiy has been unable to move since Christmas Eve after it was surrounded by thick ice, near Commonwealth Bay.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was alerted to a distress signal sent via satellite from the vessel on Wednesday.

Australian scientist Chris Turney, speaking from the ship via satellite phone in blizzard conditions, said a Chinese icebreaking vessel was expected to arrive within the next 24 hours.

The "huge" ship - called the Snow Dragon - had a strong hull capable of ploughing through the ice, he said.

Ships from France and Australia were also en route to assist.

It was a "relief" to know help was on the way, Turney said.

He had hoped a change in weather might help free the vessel but several low pressure systems had continued.

"We're right in the middle of a storm at the moment but the forecast is a lot better for [today]."

"We're surrounded by sea ice, we just can't get through," Turney said in a video posted on YouTube.

"Everyone is safe, the vessel is perfectly safe. But we can't make a passage forward." Turney said everyone was "in good spirits". About 70 people are on board; 50 mostly Australian scientists and tourists, as well as a crew of about 20, believed to be Russian.

The New Zealand contingent includes West Coast ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson, paramedic Colin Tan and two caterers; including Central Otago chef Nicole Kerr.

The ship was being used for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which departed from Bluff on November 28. The privately funded expedition, led by Turney, was to return to the huts used by Australian explorer Douglas Mawson a century ago. The huts had been inaccessible for many years because of an iceberg.

- Fairfax NZ and Reuters