Cruising on thin ice

Today's cruise ship incident demonstrates once again that tourism in Antarctica is not without its risks, writes Tim Elliott.

Early in the morning of November 23 last year, the veteran polar cruise ship MS Explorer struck ice while steaming north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Despite its ice-hardened exterior, the collision tore a hole in the ship's starboard, flooding the hull. Normally, watertight compartments are meant to contain such damage, but for some reason this didn't happen, and with the MS Explorer rapidly sinking, the order was given to abandon ship. All 154 passengers boarded lifeboats, floating on the freezing waters for five hours until their rescue.

The sinking of the MS Explorer was a timely reminder that tourism in Antarctica, land of Happy Feet, humpbacks and icebergs the size of office blocks, remains far from risk-free. Nor was it an isolated incident: in January 2007, the MS Nordkapp hit rocks near Deception Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, tearing a 25-metre hole in the ship's hull and resulting in the evacuation of the 295 passengers.

Such incidents are unlikely to put a dent in Antarctic tourism. From its beginnings in 1957, when Argentinian and Chilean naval ships first took tourists to the frozen continent to defray their operating costs, visitor numbers have steadily grown. Last year 37,552 seaborne tourists either landed or cruised through. "Over the last few years we've seen a significant increase in clients," Alex Burridge, polar expeditions manager for Peregrine, says.

"People want to see it because of the wildlife and because it's one of the last true wilderness areas left on the planet."

It's also one of the most dangerous, with savage storms, subzero temperatures even in summer and howling winds of up to 320kmh. With the nearest main port at least 36 hours steaming away across the treacherous Drake Passage, Burridge says that "Antarctica isn't just another cruise, which is why you need to take extra precautions".

Peregrine's two ships are both ice-hardened. But many larger, more luxurious cruise liners that visit the area lack such protection.

"Ice-hardening has to be built into ships from the start and it's expensive to do that," Andrew Jackson, general manager policy at the Australian Antarctic Division says. "Because there are not that many people in Antarctica, the people who do go there have to be able to look after themselves. We rely on the industry to self-regulate through the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators and we believe most of the operators comply with their guidelines."

The association's guidelines focus on contingency plans and adequate insurance. They also stipulate staff-to-passenger ratios and limit the passengers allowed ashore at any one time. But the association's records show a long history of mishaps by tourism operators in Antarctica, including vessels running aground, passengers stranded ashore, ships crushed by pack ice and colliding with whales. Onboard fires have also been reported and medical emergencies resulting from exposure to extreme cold.

Fortunately, the MS Explorer sank in uncommonly benign conditions. Things could have been different.

"Given the isolation and extreme conditions," says one official from the Australian Antarctic Division who declines to be named, "there's a chance that a real tragedy could happen."