Dozens of Australians looking forward to the trip of a lifetime have been impacted by a dispute between a cruise operator and Russian authorities.
There is no end in sight to the stand-off between One Ocean Expeditions (OOE) and Russia, after the Kremlin "suddenly and unexpectedly" seized two specialist cruise vessels it had loaned to the company for almost a decade.
Canada-based OOE has leased Russian ships the MV Akademik Ioffe and the MV Akademik Sergey Vavilov since 2011 and 2012 respectively, using them to take travellers on cruises through the Arctic and Antarctic.
However, in late May, following the end of this year's Antarctic travel season and ahead of the Arctic season, the Russian government seized the ships from OOE.
Russia claimed the Ioffe and Vavilov had to be taken to Kaliningrad for works as part of a "modernisation project". OOE rejects the claim the ships needed work and has launched legal action.
"The owners' refusal to provide the vessels is a breach of their contract with OOE. OOE has done everything in its power to compel the owners to abide by their contractual obligations," OOE wrote in a letter to booking agents.
"The vessel owners unexpectedly decided to return the vessels to Kaliningrad, Russia, for purported repairs. This was not communicated to OOE in advance.
"As such, legal action has been commenced by OOE, including the filing of an urgent application for arbitration proceedings. Unfortunately, it is now clear no matter what OOE does the vessels will not be provided for the upcoming 2019-20 cruising seasons, despite our contract.
"Given that the legal proceedings initiated by OOE following the contract breach could lead to the arrest of the vessels should they leave Russia, OOE has undertaken to share a full account of what has transpired with our agents and partners."
OOE did not respond to requests for comment or an update on the situation.
An Australian cruise booking agent which organises OOE trips said the stand-off likely represented the end of an almost 20-year partnership with the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IORAS), the Russian government body that owned the vessels.
Arctic & Antarctica Travel Centre managing director Alex Burridge said his agency had booked most Ioffe and Vavilov passengers onto replacement cruises for the upcoming Arctic and Antarctic seasons.
"To me it's a sad end to a very long – almost 20 years – and successful partnership," Burridge said.
OOE indicated it aimed to find alternative ships for all passengers in a statement posted to its website in May. If alternative arrangements could not be made then refunds would be given, OOE said.
The IORAS did not respond to a request for comment, but in an earlier statement to Cruise Industry News it denied it had a "contractual relationship" with OOE.
"The owner of the vessels is not to be blamed for cancellation of cruises, as announced by the One Ocean Expeditions," the statement read.
OOE managing director Andrew Prossin worked with the Ioffe and Vavilov while working at Peregrine Adventures, prior to their use by OOE.
"Both the Ioffe and Vavilov have been great for us, but they were nearing the end of their shelf life as they aged and became harder to maintain to our standards. However, we would have preferred to have had some input into when they were retired," he said.