(CNN) -- [Breaking news update at 11:44 p.m. ET]
The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long ("Snow Dragon") is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the expedition vessel struck in ice in Antarctica, the icebreaker's captain told CNN. He said he expects to reach the stranded vessel late Friday local time.
[Previous story, published at 8:57 p.m. ET]
Antarctic ship trapped in sea ice should be rescued by Friday
(CNN) -- The first of three ice-breaking rescue ships is expected to reach an expedition vessel trapped in frozen seas off Antarctica by Friday, the voyage's leader told CNN via Skype.
"We just want to assure family and friends, everyone is fine, the vessel is safe, and we're looking forward to getting home and having a decent cup of coffee soon," said Chris Turney, expedition leader and professor of climate change at University of New South Wales in Australia.
He said crew members, researchers and tourists aboard were doing "amazingly well."
"Morale is remarkably high," he added Thursday in the Skype interview, whose video displayed a whited-out scenery.
The MV Akademik Shokalskiy, with 74 people aboard, became locked in sea ice Monday night and spent the next 12 hours with all aboard hoping that high winds would subside.
So, the ship spent Christmas at a frozen standstill 100 nautical miles east of the French base Dumont D'Urville, about 1,500 nautical miles south of Hobart, Tasmania.
"We had a great Christmas," Turney said, though everyone was frustrated about not being able to venture out into the open ocean.
"This is an area of enormous change. We're in an area of a big driver of global climate," Turney said. "We wanted to come here to see how much change has taken place.
"Ironically, this is actually giving us extra time to do research," he said about being stuck in the frozen waters.
He joked that he gave researchers the day off on Christmas, though.
"We're looking at life under the sea ice," he added.
A Chinese ice breaker called the Snow Dragon, or Xue Long, was en route from Freemantle, Australia, to the Ross Sea at Antarctica and could reach the stuck vessel by Friday.
Meanwhile, the French vessel Astrolabe is just 17 nautical miles away and is also expected to reach the trapped researchers and tourists by Friday.
An Australian ship, the Aurora Australis, is expected to arrive later, the expedition's website said Thursday.
"Between the three of them, we're hoping to get out relatively quickly," Turney said.
A British rescue coordination center received a satellite distress signal on Christmas morning from the Russian-flagged ship and contacted the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which handles the Southern Ocean region where the vessel was stuck, a safety authority statement said.
Turney said everyone aboard the expedition vessel is scheduled to return to southern New Zealand by January 4.
Expeditions Online, a polar booking agent for the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, said on its website that the ship got stuck "partway through her Australasian Antarctic Expedition towards Mawson's Hut at Cape Denison."
The Expeditions Online website described the ship as "a fully ice-strengthened expedition vessel" for working in polar regions. "This class of vessel is world-renowned for polar exploration, because of its strength, maneuverability and small passenger numbers," the company's website said.
CNN's Brianna Keilar, Tom Cohen, Kevin Wang, CY Xu and April Ma contributed to this report.