One Ocean Expeditions cruises cancelled leaving passengers, staff out of pocket

Australian Michelle Rea was meant to be in Argentina on Thursday, preparing to board a cruise ship from Ushuaia to Antarctica on a photography tour.

This was her second attempt to visit Antarctica and South Georgia Island with Canadian cruise company One Ocean Expeditions (OOE).

OOE cancelled her previous booking earlier this year amid what the company calls a "restructuring" of the business sparked by the Russian government's seizing of two ships, leased by the company, in May. 

The Gold Coast resident was left "bitterly disappointed" when it happened again this week.

"I was booked on a trip leaving the 6th of November. I should be in the air right now," she said.

"This was the second time they cancelled as myself and three friends were also booked on an earlier trip that was cancelled due to the vessels being recalled by their owners. We have not been reimbursed for costs associated with those changes as promised."

Ms Rea is one of hundreds of cruise passengers - including dozens of Australians - who have been unable to take their dream trips and left out of pocket by the embattled OOE.

With the company also facing allegations from former employees and contractors of unpaid wages, OOE is attempting to quell fears that hundreds more passengers are set to be disappointed in the Antarctica cruise season from November to early April.

Managing director Andrew Prossin told Traveller that OOE is "working diligently around the clock at restructuring" in the form of new financing.

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"That's going quite well with several potential parties. We're hopeful we can resolve the issues at hand and get a good plan to move forward within just days," he said.

OOE's first cancellation this season was a 19-day bird-watching Antarctica cruise for 140 passengers at the end of October.

This week Mr Prossin emailed those booked for a 6 November trip, including Ms Rea, to announce the cancellation. The letter offered customers a replacement trip on any voyage in the next 24 months but did not mention a refund.

OOE's struggles come after a turbulent 15 months that started when one of its ships, Russian-owned MV Akademik Ioffe, ran aground in the Arctic.

In May this year, the Ioffe and its sister ship MV Akademik Sergey Valivov - which formed two of OOE's three-ship fleet - were "suddenly and unexpectedly" reclaimed by the Russian government, according to OOE. The compnay is currently challenging the Kremlin's decision in court.

OOE's remaining ship, RCGS Resolute, was then seized twice in Canada this year: by a shipping company in August and eight former employees in September, both demanding tens of thousands of dollars owed in wages and service fees.

One Australian worker, who did not wish to be named, said he is owed around $US7000 ($10,100) after working on two Antarctica trips in the past year.

"All the employees were contractors, meaning we were responsible for our own training, qualifications, visas. The company would cover airfares but in most case you would have to seek reimbursement, so many of us are out of pocket for those too," he said.

He said he had "zero" hope of being paid the overdue amount by OOE.

"I'm scheduled to work February to April, like my colleagues we just assume that's totally disappeared."

OOE has continued to accept bookings in the meantime, with trips costing between $US10,000 and $US30,000 ($15,000 and $43,000). Resolute remained docked in Buenos Aires on Friday, but OOE said it was expecting no further cancellations this season.

In the meantime Ms Rea said "my travel insurance does not cover me as the reason for cancellation was 'restructuring'".

"I hold no faith in this company. It appears as if bad company practice has been going on for a long time," she said.

"I have had only one piece of correspondence from them and they are not contactable.

"I feel they took our booking under false pretences."

"The amount of money I have lost is substantial but the disappointment of not seeing the amazing wildlife on South Georgia far outweighs that."

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