Another tourist season ends in Antarctica

Hopefully this will be my last update on the 2010-2011 Antarctic tourist season, which is winding down.

Upwards of 35,000 visitors have visited the Peninsula aboard more than 35 different ships. The majority left from Ushuaia, Argentina, and returned there without incident … with a couple notable exceptions … not bad statistics considering they were venturing into one of the more wild corners on the planet.

But each season those couple exceptions remind us just how treacherous the region can be, and just how remote. While tour operators don’t like to see press coverage of Antarctic accidents – tends to scare away potential business – I’m convinced that each accident is both wake-up call and educator for both the public and the industry.

A week ago a competently staffed, veteran icebreaker, “The Polar Star,” hit a rock off Detaille Island, several hundred miles down the Peninsula. Initial reports from the ship were that the incident was minor and a written report from the scene by expedition leader Kris Madden said that although there was a hole in the ship’s hull it was in “no immediate danger.”

But she went on: “It was pretty scary there for a few hours and looked like we would have to abandon ship. In all likelihood we will be transferred to a rescue ship in the area tonight.”Ultimately there was no midnight rescue and the “Polar Star” was able to motor to the South Shetland’s King George Island where – after completion of an underwater inspection — it was decided to offload its 80 passengers onto a trio of other tourist ships in the area. The ship, with crew and staff aboard, then motored across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia. The rest of its Antarctic season has been canceled, suggesting the repairs will take some time.

Reporting-from-the-scene of these Antarctic incidents is always a bit sketchy. It’s far away, information passes through multi-channels, and the ship companies are not keen for the attention. What the “Polar Star” initially labeled a “breach” in the hull – a tear, a gash, a hole — caused by hitting an “uncharted” rock ultimately turned into something concerning enough that they felt safer offloading its passengers.

(It’s understandably hard to divine the extent of damage while at sea. I was on the scene when the “Explorer” sank off the tip of the Peninsula in November 2007 and the report from its crew was that ice had punched a “fist-sized” hole in the hull. A year later an exhaustive report stated it was more like a 10-foot long gash.)

One very good thing about the continued popularity of Antarctic tourism is that so far whenever one of these incidents has happened there have been other tourist ships within easy reach willing and happy to help.

When the “Clelia II” got in trouble in the Drake Passage in early December, for example – washed over by 35-40 foot waves — the “National Geographic Explorer” was able to change course, locate the disabled ship which had lost its communication system, “launch” it a satellite phone and standby while it recovered.

The aftermath of the “Clelia II”s experience – a railing broken off by the big seas was tossed through the bridge window and the subsequent flooding disabled its communications and forced it to slow its engines – hopefully gave pause to the entire industry.

While early reports from the South American press said the ship had lost an engine, the captain insisted he’d never lost control of the ship. Reports from the docks in Ushuaia after-the-fact suggest there was more damage to the boat than admitted at the time.

The “Clelia II” was not built for Antarctica. It is owned by one company (Helios Shipping, Paraeus, Greece) and its passengers booked by various travel companies (Travel Dynamics International, Overseas Adventure Travel, Wilderness Travel and others). As recently as a month before it went to Antarctica this past season it was doing “fall foliage” trips through the locks of the northern Great Lakes.

Prior to the December it had previous close calls. In September 2010 it lost power in one engine on its way to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and was grounded in calm waters; a year before, on December 26, 2009, it engine power and ran aground off Petermann Island on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The most disconcerting note about the “Clelia II” incident was sent me by “National Geographic Explorer” passenger Amy Gitnick who relayed what passengers were told by her expedition leader: “Apparently the ‘Clelia II’ has Iridium phones on a pre-paid plan and the plan ran out of minutes and so they needed another phone line to reactivate their account.”

Let’s be straight about this: The reason the “Explorer” risked its own 150 passengers and 100 crew in heavy seas mid-Drake Passage was because an Antarctic tourist ship loaded with its own passengers and crew had run out of minutes on its sat phone?

(I have three sat phones, which we use on expedition, and have been charging them and successfully subscribing to them for nearly 15 years.)

The experience of the “Clelia II” – which thankfully resulted only in some bruises for passengers, one injured crewman and some bad press – was, I believe, a wake-up call for Antarctic tourist operators.

For example, a new, 264-passenger luxury ship “Le Boreal,” which was to serve as Abercrombie & Kent’s Antarctic ship this season, canceled at least one planned trip to the Peninsula and spent weeks at the dock in Ushuaia fixing “wear and tear” (a little concerning given that the ship was only put in the water in June). Company spokesman said it had decided to cancel its trip to avoid the potential for problems arising in Antarctica.

If the company hadn’t seen those pictures of a disabled “Clelia II” getting hammered in the Drake I wonder if it might have been so reluctant, given that they were forced to refund a few hundred passengers.

Lindblad Expeditions, the most-veteran Antarctic tourist company, has been taking passengers to the Peninsula for more than 40 years. It provides cautionary words relevant to the “Clelia II’s” experience in its own sales tools.

In a 34-page downloadable brochure titled “6 Questions to Ask Before Choosing your Antarctic Travel Company” it recommends choosing an experienced captain and crew, a ship qualified ship for the conditions and a company that doesn’t just charter a ship but owns it.

(Regarding safety, as well as forward-scanning sonar, double-weather forecasting, an ice light and ice radar, the “National Geographic Explorer” carries, according to the literature, five satellite phones …which the masters of the “Clelia II” might note.)

The brochure is quietly critical of some of the company’s competitors: “More and more cruise lines have added Antarctica to their itineraries. And many tour operators, accustomed to voyaging in ‘tamer’ waters are leasing adventure ships to offer Antarctic voyages, too. Given the increasing numbers of reported ship mishaps in Antarctic waters, it is not hard to conclude too many guests and operators alike may be undertaking this too lightly.”

“We believe that having a ship you control, and a completely coordinated staff and crew is vital for safety reasons … A Cruise Director employed by a leasing travel company coordinating with a Captain and crew who work for a different owner simply cannot produce the teamwork that is the hallmark of our expeditions.”

Each season brings changes to the way tourist operations work along the Peninsula. There are new efforts underway to expand tourism onto the continent, by ship companies offering camping, climbing and diving options as part of their itineraries. To-date those have been considered off-limits for environmental and safety reasons. But demand is growing for the next new thing. Hopefully if those plans proceed there won’t be any operators who view the undertaking “too lightly.”

As of August 2011 new rules adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will prohibit boats carrying “heavy fuel” from visiting the Peninsula, which means the giant cruise boat traffic – the Princess Cruises, Regents Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises and others – will no longer be able to venture there.

The IMO is also putting pressure on for a mandatory polar code by 2012 that would regulate all ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters. The measure is aimed at preventing both tourist ship accidents and sinkings like that of the South Korean fishing trawler that went down in the Ross Sea last December. That crew was not as lucky as those aboard the “Polar Star” or the “Clelia II”; 23 fishermen drowned in the icy Southern Ocean.

Read more from Jon Bowermaster’s Adventures here.

[flickr images via Christian Revival Network]