Another reminder of the risks of cruising in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments was perched on rocks off the coast of Antarctica earlier today.
In an incident that had echoes of the grounding of the MV Ushaia in December last year, the Danish-built vessel Ocean Nova was stranded off the Argentine San Martin research base last night, waiting to be released by the tide.
No serious injuries have been reported to date but the accident has renewed debate surrounding cruise ship safety and the growth in tourism to the Antarctic.
The same happened with the collision of the MS Nordkapp just over a year ago, and the sinking of the MV Explorer in November 2007.
Visitor numbers to the Antarctic have grown significantly over the past few years, leaping by 22 per cent between 2006/7 and 2007/8 – up from 37,552 to 46,069 – increasing the likelihood of accidents purely in numerical terms.
Climate change may be another factor.
Dr John Shears, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, said that the effects of global warming could be encouraging expedition cruise ships to explore areas they had previously not been able to reach.
“There is now much less sea ice in the region than 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “More isolated areas are becoming more accessible, and expedition ships have been going farther south into the Antarctic Peninsula than before, accessing even remoter areas.”
However, Dr Shears stressed that the main safety issue involved big cruise ships, where large-scale evacuation would be a much more difficult operation. By the standards of cruising, the Ocean Nova was a small expedition vessel, carrying just 64 passengers and 41 crew. Larger cruise ships – some of which have more than 3,000 passengers – carry an increasing majority of the tourists that visit the region.
This concern is shared by Fred Griffin, of the specialist travel agency, The Cruise People.
“These larger ships are entering Antarctic waters without being built for navigating the ice whatsoever,” he said.
While the Ocean Nova had a reinforced hull, bigger cruise liners frequently enter into Antarctic waters without the same protection.
Mr Griffin suggested that large operators going to the Antarctic should be strongly encouraged to practise full-scale evacuations, something that is regarded as standard on the Great Lakes of North America, for example.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) tries to encourage safe tourism, issuing guidelines to its voluntary members. Large cruise liners do belong to the organisation, but there are concerns over the association’s power to influence their behaviour. Without a traditional government in Antarctica, there is no clear way to enforce rules that would stop cruise ships from sightseeing – although passengers that actually disembark onto Antarctic territory are limited to 100 per ship.
While the Ocean Nova may shortly sail away from rocky waters, safety concerns over cruises in the Antarctic are here to stay. The ship’s passengers and crew now know that only too well.