A ship in the British navy came to the aid of a stranded cruise ship in the Antarctic last week, helping to clear a path through the ice that had entrapped the civilian vessel. While no one was injured and the entire operation took just a few hours to complete, the incident underscores the challenges of traveling in the Southern Ocean, even in the 21st century.
The ice-breaking vessel HMS Protector was on a regular patrol route off the coast of Antarctica, with the Norwegian cruise liner Fram following close behind. The cruise ship had hoped to safely follow the Protector through the icy waters that were dense with ice floes at the time. But before the boat could navigate out of the perilous region, the large chunks of ice moved in, completely encircling the vessel and preventing it from moving forward or backward.
A quick call to the Protector alerted the first ship of the situation, bringing it quickly around to render aid. It took the icebreaker two hours to crack through the 13-foot-thick ice that had encircled the cruise liner, before it was free to continue its voyage.
The passengers aboard the Fram were fortunate that the Protector was so close at hand or they could have been held in place for much longer. Considering the size of the Southern Ocean and the relatively few vessels in those waters, it could have been hours or even days before another ship could have come to assist. Similarly, had the Protector not been an icebreaker it wouldn’t have been able to lend a hand either.
The Norwegian cruise liner was never in any real danger, but ships running into problems off of Antarctica are a fairly common affair. Back in 2007, the cruise ship MV Explorer sank off the coast of the frozen continent and in 2010 another ship ran into trouble when it lost an engine while crossing the perilous Drake Passage. In 2011, a third ship ran aground on rocks near the Antarctic Peninsula, breaching its hull in the process. In each case, all passengers were evacuated safely from these vessels but some travel experts believe that it is only a matter of time before a tragic accident occurs.
Updated: More Info on this incident
After writing this story I heard from Steve Wellmeier, the Administrative Director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) who filled in a lot more information of what was happening when the Fram became stuck in the ice.
In seems the cruise ship was hoping to make a regularly scheduled stop at Brown Bluff, their scheduled destination for the day, but due to high concentrations of ice in the area, it didn’t seem likely that they would reach that point. The Protector was already heading to the same location and invited the Fram to follow along. The two ships then proceeded to Brown Bluff as scheduled, with passengers from both vessels going ashore.
Later, as both ships were making their way back to open water, the Protector once again took the lead and proceeded ahead. At one point they reached an area of pack ice that was thicker than what they had encountered previously, so the Fram stopped to let the icebreaker do her job. While the Protector nosed ahead, the dense ice moved in quickly around the cruise liner, preventing her from moving forward and trapping her in place.
Realizing what had happened, the Protector then came around and cleared the ice quickly and efficiently from the path of the Fram, freeing her to continue her voyage. We’re told that this was not a rescue per se, but rather a routine assistance of one ship to another, without danger to either vessel or anyone aboard.
It is good to get the full story directly from a source that knows the logistics of what was happening in the Antarctic. The IAATO, and its members, work hard to ensure that travel in that part of the world is safe for both passengers and the environment. Their efforts make it possible for those of us who want to go to Antarctica to actually do so.
[Photo Credit: Royal Navy]