The Xue Long becomes visible to the Aurora Australis for the first time.

The Xue Long becomes visible to the Aurora Australis for the first time. Photo: Colin Cosier

Australian icebreaker the Aurora Australis has spotted the stricken Akademik Shokalskiy on the horizon for the first time since it was asked to rescue the Russian vessel on Christmas Day.

The Aurora has spent most of New Year's Day ploughing through pack ice towards Chinese ship the Xue Long, which has also been waiting in the pack.

It is now 3.1 miles from the Xue Long and has made slow but steady progress through the ice, which has been broken up by the wind and is more flexible in places.

Heavy fog that has hampered rescue efforts for the past two days finally lifted on Wednesday mid-morning.

Watt Bay, near the Mertz Glacier, has been shrouded in low-hanging fog, preventing the helicopter on the Xue Long from flying because without a horizion pilots find it difficult to distinguish between ice floes and clouds.

The first part of the rescue will be carried out by the Chinese, who will use their helicopter to transport the 52 passengers from the Shokalskiy, which has been hired by a group of Australian scientists and tourists, to the Xue Long.

The Aurora will co-ordinate the second phase of the evacuation by shipping the Shokalskiy passengers from the Xue Long to the Aurora, using its barge.

The Australian ship spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning navigating a path through thick pack ice towards the Xue Long, which has been sitting within the pack for several days.

“We went in to see how far we could get in close to the Xue Long and let them know where some easy ice was,” Aurora captain Murray Doyle said.

The Xue Long is within about 18 kilometres of pack ice, which is needed so it can operate its helicopter when the rescue begins.

“[Captain Wang] has been sitting there because his helicopter doesn't have floats, so it can't fly over water.”

But to avoid getting caught in the pack itself, the Xue Long has been slowly moving back towards open water, Captain Doyle said.

Crew on board the Aurora, which is owned by P&O Maritime and leased to the Australian Antarctic Division, have been preparing a selection of dried food items to transfer to the Shokalskiy for the crew, who will remain on the beset vessel.

The Shokalskiy has been trapped by thick sea ice since Christmas Day. There is now about 22 kilometres of ice between the ship and open water.

Pack ice moves at the mercy of the wind and because the Shokalskiy is surrounded by pack ice, it moves with the ice. Over the past two days the ship has moved 1.3 nautical miles - about 2.4 kilometres.

Nicky Phillips and Colin Cosier are travelling in Antarctica as part of the Australian Antarctic Division's media program.