150 Evacuated from MS Explorer Cruise Ship off Antarctica

Tuesday, November 27th 2007, 11:01 pm
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- A Canadian cruise ship, the MS Explorer, struck submerged ice off Antarctica and began taking on water, but all 154 passengers and crew took to lifeboats and were rescued safely today by a passing Norwegian liner, officials said.

On calm seas, the Explorer passengers and crew were safely moved from rubber boats in subfreezing temperatures to the Nordnorge, a Norwegian cruise ship that was nearby and responded to the distress call, said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which owns the stricken vessel.

The 91 passengers from 14 countries included at least 13 Americans, 22 Britons, 17 Dutch and 10 Canadians, officials said. In addition to the passengers, there were nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54, Hayes said.

"The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water ... but quite slowly," she said. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever."

She called the evacuation process "calm," and said pumps were able to deal with incoming water until the Nordnorge arrived.

The Explorer was completing an ecological tour of Antarctica when it struck the ice, Hayes said.

She said the ship was listing at about 40 degrees and was in danger of sinking.

"There is a possibility we may lose the ship," she said.

The British coast guard said it was told at 12:24 a.m. EST of the incident involving the 2,646-ton Explorer near the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land, an Antarctic peninsula.

Rescue centers in Norfolk, Va., and Ushuaia, Argentina, were taking charge of coordinating the rescue, the coast guard said.

The statement said Explorer was some 475 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city and a jumping-off point for cruise ships and supply vessels for Antarctica.

Seas were calm and winds light at the time, what Panichini called "optimal conditions for carrying out the evacuation."

Chilean air force Cmdr. Raul Jorquera, at a Chilean air base on King George Island, said he expected the Nordnorge's arrival later today. He said he expected the survivors to be flown to Punta Arenas at the southernmost tip of Chile on Saturday because of bad weather.

"We will probably wait until tomorrow to send two or three planes to transport the passengers," he told the Associated Press.

G.A.P Adventures is a tour company that provides eco-friendly excursions with an environmental focus. The Explorer was in the midst of a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands that allowed passengers to observe penguins, whales, and other forms of local wildlife.

Traveling to Antarctica is always risky, Hayes said.