Aboard the National Geographic Endeavor, Capt. Oliver Kruess was the first to see the stricken tourist ship Explorer from about 15 miles away.
The captain and his team had been on high alert for several hours, when the 1:45 a.m. distress call was broadcast announcing to all ships in the region that the 100-passenger vessel had apparently hit an iceberg and was taking on water.
Around 3 a.m. all of Explorer's passengers — plus some crew, though not the captain and a dozen staff who would stay on board for several hours more — were put into the ship's lifeboats and Zodiacs (small inflatable boats).
The Explorer was in the middle of a 19-day tour of South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Twelve miles south of King George Island at the accident position, it was still dark, the air temperature in the low 30s, with water temperature a degree or two below freezing.
As part of the Endeavor's staff, representing National Geographic on board during a month of touring the Antarctic Peninsula region and simultaneously scouting a sea kayak expedition here, I was awoken at 3:30 a.m. by expedition leader Tim Soper.
Vessel Steams to Help
At a hastily prepared staff meeting, it was announced we were steaming to the location of the Explorer, followed by the Nord Norge, a big, 700-passenger Norwegian cruise ship. The Norwegian ship would be the coordinating rescue vessel, because it had room on board to accommodate survivors. A Brazilian navy ship and Chilean helicopter were also en route.
We reached a line of orange lifeboats and black Zodiacs shortly before 7 a.m. Passengers in each boat were wet, appeared stunned and were obviously moved by spotting the rescue ships headed their way.
Accidents in the Antarctic by tourist ships is not uncommon. Last year, the Nord Cap, the sister ship to the Nord Norge, ran aground near Deception Island and had to unload its passengers onto the Norge. The last ship to sink in Antarctic waters was the Bahia Paraiso, which sank off Janus and DeLaca islands in 1989. With 25,000 tourists now visiting each year, on more than 50 ships, accidents are an increasing concern.
According to one of the Explorer's crew, the ship had apparently hit something — most likely an iceberg — which made a fist-size hole in the hull. There may have been another hole. The Explorer was the very first tour vessel to operate in Antarctica; it was built in the 1960s by expedition tourism veteran Lars-Erik Lindblad and was the very first ship to bring tourists to Antarctica in 1969. It survived previous groundings in Antarctica in 1972 and 1979. The ship is currently owned and operated by the Toronto-based adventure travel company GAP.
As we watched the line of lifeboats pull alongside the Nord Norge, aided by Zodiacs sent out from both the Endeavor and Nord Norge, a cold morning sun glistened off the Southern Ocean.
Water temperatures remained near the freezing mark, and wind-chill temperatures were in the mid-20s. Cold water and wind are the ingredients of hypothermia, the greatest risk for those in the lifeboats. Once safely aboard the Nord Norge, passengers and crew were taken to King George Island in the South Shetland Islands where a charter plane would most likely carry them back to the tip of Chile, at Punta Arenas.
As the rescue operation continued successfully, with no apparent serious injuries, the Explorer listed heavily to starboard in the near distance. Waves washed onto its decks; at one point it rested against a floating iceberg.
As the sinking vessel's Zodiacs were brought onto the deck of the Endeavor, we took a closer inspection. Many of Endeavor's crew had worked on Explorer during its more than 40 years as a global expedition ship. They were obviously saddened by seeing its apparent final moments afloat. It was a sobering moment for all, a reminder that accidents even here in Antarctica happen suddenly and with powerful impact.
Jon Bowermaster is an adventure writer based in Stong Ridge, N.Y. Click here for his Web site.