154 evacuated safely from cruise ship after it struck ice off Antarctica

Published 6:04 pm Friday, November 23, 2007

A Canadian cruise ship struck ice off Antarctica and began taking on water, but all 154 passengers and crew took to lifeboats and were rescued safely Friday by a passing Norwegian liner, officials said.

The passengers and crew from the Explorer were picked up by 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 included at least 13 Americans, 22 Britons and 10 Canadians, officials said. In addition to the passengers, there were nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54, Hayes said.

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“The passengers are absolutely fine,” Hayes said. “They’re all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever.”

The Nordnorge has enough room to accommodate all the passengers, “so they may very well continue their journey on the Nordnorge,” Hayes said.

The Explorer was completing an ecological tour of Antarctica when it struck a chunk of ice that tore a hole about the size of a fist in its hull, Hayes said.

She called the evacuation process “calm,” saying pumps were able to deal with incoming water until the Nordnorge arrived.

Still, Hayes said the ship is in danger of sinking.

“It is listing. … 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.

An Argentine rescue and command center received a first distress call at 11:30 p.m. EST Thursday from the Explorer amid reports it was taking on water through the hull despite efforts to use onboard pumps, said Capt. Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman.

A navy statement said the captain ordered passengers to abandon ship about 90 minutes after the first call and that they and the crew took to eight semi-rigid lifeboats and four life rafts, with the captain leaving the ship later.

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,”

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.

The Nordnorge, built in 1997, is 403 feet long and has a capacity of 691 passengers in 214 cabins.