Are Glacier Sail-Bys Safe?

August 10, 2007
Today's news that seventeen British passengers on an Arctic cruise were injured when a calving glacier sent a wave of ice over the deck poses an important question: Could this happen elsewhere?

One of the highlights of voyages in the Arctic and Antarctic -- as well as more mainstream regions like Alaska and the Chilean fjords of South America -- is to watch the glaciers "calve" (this is when large pieces of ice break off of a glacier and fall into the ocean to become icebergs). This expedition vessel, Aleksey Maryshev, was near the southeast corner of Spitsbergen, a Norwegian island 600 miles from the North Pole, when the captain closed in on the disintegrating glacier for sightseers on deck.

According to the U.K's Times Online, the ice that fell into the water generated a large wave that made the ship roll excessively, causing most of the passengers to fall on the deck. Tirai Aunevik, the ship agent for Aleksey Maryshev, told the Times Online that "it was not so much the ice that fell directly on to the boat but the wave. There is always a lot of ice in the water around the glaciers and the wave almost flipped the boat over, filling the deck with ice where people were standing."

Most of the injuries were minor (fractures, cuts and bruises). However, two passengers were seriously injured -- one with a punctured lung and rib fractures, another with head injuries and internal bleeding -- and a Russian crewmember suffered a broken leg.

The Aleksey Maryshev holds 46 passengers double occupancy (48 were onboard the voyage in question); it is a research vessel belonging to the Hydrographic Institute of St. Petersburg, but is currently under a long-term contract with Dutch company Oceanwide Expeditions, which offers small-ship experiences in the Arctic, Antarctica, and mid- and north-Atlantic islands.

As for the overall safety of sail-bys, if enough distance is maintained between a vessel and a glacier, the risk of such an accident occurring is minimal. A spokesman for Norwegian Coastal Voyages, which sails similar itineraries throughout the year, tells us that on a recent Greenland trip the captain maintained a minimum distance of one-quarter to half of a mile (1,320 to 2,640 feet) between the ship and glaciers. Princess, a major player in Alaska and South America, maintains at least a quarter of a mile between any of their ships and glaciers. And Cruise West spokeswoman Jerrol Golden tells us that there are "very strict guidelines -- a quarter-mile is the absolute closest we will get. If there seems to be a lot of calving activity we may stay further away than that."

There are conflicting reports at this point in time on how close Aleksey Maryshev actually was to the glacier, ranging from 10 to 100 meters (33 to 330 feet) -- much less than the shortest gaps maintained by Princess, Cruise West and NCV. Witek Kaszkin, a researcher at a nearby Polish polar station who assisted in bringing the injured ashore, told the Times Online that "fifteen meters is enough for an accident. It's a dangerous place. I never get so close."

--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor