November marks the beginning of the tourist season in the icy waters off the coast of Antarctica. It is mid-spring down south, and travelers with a sense of adventure, and plenty of cash, are heading to the frozen continent to get the opportunity to visit one of the last true frontiers on the planet, and possibly get a glimpse of Emperor Penguins while they’re in the neighborhood too.
The past few years have been challenging ones for Antarctic cruise ships. In 2007, the MS Explorer sunk after hitting an iceberg, and last year two more ships ran aground while maneuvering through the treacherous waters. Fortunately no one was hurt in those incidences, although the sinking of the Explorer did create an ecological disaster when tens of thousands of gallons of fuel were released into the water.
With the 2009 tourist season barely underway, there has already been in incident in the Weddell Sea, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, where a Russian icebreaker called the Captain Khlebnikov became trapped by ice for the better part of two days. The ship, which carries roughly 100 passengers, found itself stuck behind large icebergs when winds shifted, causing the ice to close all access to open waters. While the boat was never in any real danger, it was unable to continue along its intended route, preventing those aboard from following their intended itinerary.
Late yesterday, the winds shifted once again, and the Captain Khlebnikov was allowed to return to its scheduled route. It is now estimated that it’ll be three to four days late getting back to port, but will make its appointed rounds, allowing the passengers to get their close encounter with the penguins after all.
Hopefully this will be the only incident in the Antarctic waters this season. In the greater scheme of things, it was a rather minor issue, but as ship traffic increases at the bottom of the world, and more people travel there, the chances of a true disaster striking, seems to be almost inevitable.