Explorer Passengers Head Home; Sunken Ship Raises Questions

November 26, 2007

Update, 5:45 p.m.: Passengers have begun flying home or are continuing their travels from Punta Arenas, according to the most recent company statement. Remaining passengers will leave Punta Arenas within the next day. Representatives from the consular offices of Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States are on the ground in Punta Arenas to assist passengers.

(November 24) -- Adventure travel and eco-tourism company G.A.P. Adventures has confirmed that the M/S Explorer sank at 7 p.m. GMT on Friday, November 23. The vessel, dubbed "The Little Red Ship," sent out a distress call about 14 hours earlier after striking ice and taking on water close to the South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic Ocean.

According to an official statement, all passengers and crew are safe and spent last night at King George Island in Antarctica. They will be boarding flights today and tomorrow to Punta Arenas, Chile. G.A.P. Adventures has arranged accommodations in Punta Arenas and is currently scheduling flights home from there.

Evacuees were brought to King George Island by one of two nearby ships that came to the aid of Explorer after the accident. Hurtigruten's Nordnorge and Lindblad Expeditions' National Geographic Endeavor arrived on the scene at pretty much the same time, but Nordnorge had empty beds so it was agreed that they would take passengers and crewmembers onboard, travel writer and filmmaker Jon Bowermaster told the New York Times.

Bowermaster, who is currently sailing onboard the Endeavor as a lecturer, described the rescue scenario as "surreal." It was a beautiful morning, he says -- but the string of orange lifeboats bobbing in the icy water near the sinking ship made it clear the passengers had been through a cold, difficult ordeal.

Now that all involved are safe and accounted for the next logical question is: Why did Explorer, the first expedition ship ever constructed, with its ice-strengthened hull, sink? At the moment, there's no clear-cut answer. G.A.P. Adventures reports that the hole in the hull was about the size of a fist; however, the Argentine navy later told the Associated Press it observed "significant" damage to the hull.

Also, at Explorer's last inspection in May, watertight doors were described as "not as required," according to news reports -- though G.A.P. Adventures does maintain that all problems were fixed before the vessel was allowed to sail.

Cruise Critic member Tia Serena posts on the Antarctica forum: "I used to work for the Explorer many years ago ... There were some concerns about hull integrity at the time, but I am still surprised to hear that a bit of ice broke her hull, after all it was steel plate inches thick (at least on the bow...).

"There is also a growing concern among the staff that operates in Antarctica about the increased ship traffic in the area, as well as the fact that they are extending the season by starting cruises earlier and finishing later. When I started working on expedition ships in 1993 nobody would think of starting a cruise so early in November.

"I am devastated. She was not the prettiest ship around, but she was certainly part of cruising history."

Yesterday, we asked readers via our home page Daily Poll: "How safe do you think Antarctic expedition cruises are?" The majority -- 31 percent -- said "As safe as any other means of travel," though "I'd feel uneasy; it's rough terrain" and "Very -- today's incident was isolated" were close behind with 28 and 27 percent respectively.

What do you think? E-mail me at melissa@cruisecritic.com; please put Antarctica in the subject line.<BR

--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor