Is a map error to blame for the sinking of Sea Diamond? That's what officials at Louis Hellenic Cruises are saying, citing "erroneous mapping information" in a press release as the cause of the accident off the island of Santorini in April.

Louis commissioned a hydrographic survey from Greece's AKTI Engineering that revealed that the reef which the ship struck before sinking was both further from shore and larger than estimated. (In layman's terms, a hydrographic survey is a process of gathering data about navigable waters for purposes of vessel safety.)

In particular, Louis' recent survey shows that the reef stretches for 130 meters from the shore, whereas the existing nautical map, issued by the Hellenic Navy's Hydrographic Service, showed the reef stretching only for 60 meters. Also, the official chart shows the depth of the water at the area of impact varying from 18 to 22 meters, while the new survey shows that it is only five meters. Based on the official nautical chart, the vessel would have been on a safe course while approaching Santorini.

George Koubenas, Louis' fleet operations manager, told reporters that the chart in use onboard was first issued in 1989 and has been updated several times since; a weekly notice to mariners issued days before the accident contained no changes pertaining to the reef.

Nearly 1,600 passengers and crewmembers were safely evacuated before Sea Diamond sank; two French passengers are missing and presumed drowned; Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry subsequently fined parent company Louis Group, operator Louis Hellenic Cruises and Greek captain Yiannis Marinos a total of 1.17 million euros ($1.57 million) for environmental pollution.

Not surprisingly, Louis wants the Greek state to carry out its own research to confirm its findings in the hope that said fine will be lifted. However, the Hellenic Navy's Hydrographic Service has already rejected Louis' claim. An official speaking anonymously told Reuters that "there may be some changes to the seabed or small margins of error but these maps are accepted by all international bodies. It was the captain's responsibility to be careful."

"Finding that the hydrographic service is at fault will be very difficult for [Louis] to prove," Cruise Critic's Greece-based correspondent Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis tells us. "The captain had been to this port several times without problems. A reef isn't going to make any drastic moves or any sudden growth. There have not been any such accidents in Santorini until the Sea Diamond."

Though $1.57 million is a significant fine for a single incident, other cruise lines have shelled out more for harming the environment; in 2002, Carnival Corporation (the parent company of lines including Carnival Cruise Lines, Princess and Holland America) received a whopping $18 million fine for discharging waste water and oil into the Caribbean, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. In 1999, Royal Caribbean was fined a record-setting $27 million.

We'll keep you posted.

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor