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Australian taxpayers will foot a $400,000 bill for the rescue of a group of climate scientists, tourists and journalists from a stranded Russian research vessel – an operation that has blown the contingency budget of Australia’s Antarctic program and disrupted its scientific work.

The Antarctic Division in Hobart said it was revising plans and considering airlifting urgently needed scientific equipment that could not be unloaded from Aurora Australis before the ship was diverted from the Casey base to rescue the novice ice explorers just before Christmas.

As ship owners from China, France and Australia were left with a hefty bill from the rescue effort, maritime safety authorities said they were relieved to have taken the untrained tourists to safety, leaving the future of the ice-locked Russian ship in the hands of professionals.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt said the cost to taxpayers would be $400,000. This included $30,000 a day for the ship, plus incidentals.

“There has also been a disruption to the scientific program,” Mr Hunt said.

He said it was unclear whether the cost would be covered by insurance.

“Australia has international maritime responsibilities regarding search and rescue which we embrace and have fulfilled with energy,” he said.

“However, this incident is a reminder that everyone operating in the Southern Ocean – be they whalers, protesters, climate believers or those of a different view – has to put safety ahead of everything else.”

All 52 passengers aboard the stranded MV Akademik Shokalskiy were airlifted to safety aboard the Aurora Australis by a helicopter from a Chinese icebreaker on Thursday.

The rescue bill continued to mount yesterday as the return of the Aurora Australis to Casey base was delayed after the Chinese vessel Xue Long notified rescue authorities it had concerns about its ability to move back into open water due to heavy ice.

The Australian icebreaker was put on standby late yesterday and ordered to remain in open water as a precautionary measure.

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