How Long Before the Next Titanic?

Thu, Jan 29, 2009

How Long Before the Next Titanic?

Experts say another Titanic is a real and growing possibility in the unforgiving waters of the Southern Ocean.

Antarctica is emerging as one of the cruise industry’s hottest destinations. But the chance of an iceberg taking a ship down is growing just as fast.

by Stephan Talty

Near midnight on november 23, 2007, Eli Charne was lying on his bunk in cabin 314 in the lowest passenger level of the MS Explorer as the cruise ship churned through a field of ice. Charne, a photographer based in California, was resting up for the next day’s excursion to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip he had long dreamed of taking. It was the main reason he had booked his ticket on the “Spirit of Shackleton tour,” a G.A.P Adventures tour that traced the route of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the Irish explorer who nearly died on the ice some 100 years earlier.

Charne’s hand rested lightly between the steel bar of his bed’s frame and the wall as he drifted off to sleep. He could hear and feel the low, grinding vibration of the ice slabs against the reinforced double hull of the 239-foot ship. It was the oddly comforting music of the Antarctic nights, a counterpoint to the stillness of days spent drifting through cathedral-high icebergs and the otherworldly blues and whites of the Southern Ocean.

Suddenly there was a loud bang, and the wall buckled against Charne’s fingers, crushing them against the frame. He tried to wrench his hand away but it was futile. The wall — and the hull behind it — was being forced inward under tremendous pressure. Just as he thought the steel would snap his bones, the pressure relented and he pulled his hand away. The wall flexed back to its original shape, and the room grew quiet.

Charne could hear his bunkmate shouting his name, but his earplugs muffled the sound. And then he felt something one does not ever want to feel in a dark room in the lowest hold of a ship two days from the nearest inhabited land: water.

When his roommate hit the light switch, Charne looked down to see a foot and a half of freezing seawater sloshing around the cabin — and rising fast. The truth of what had happened struck him: An iceberg had ripped a hole in the Explorer’s seemingly impregnable double hull. “I was shocked,” the photographer remembers. “We had to get the hell out of there.”

At that moment a clock began to tick for the ship’s 154 passengers and crew, caught on a badly damaged ship in one of the harshest environments on Earth. And soon after they were rescued, experts began sounding the alarm for what one called an “unthinkable disaster” that awaited other Antarctic cruisers unless the industry changed its ways. Another Titanic, they say, is a real and growing possibility in the unforgiving waters of the Southern Ocean.

Five time zones away in France, James Barnes was stunned when he got the news that the Explorer had been gored by an iceberg. “It was extremely sobering,” says Barnes, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, who has been fighting for 30 years to protect Antarctica. The ASOC has prevented mining companies from drilling on the ice and fought illegal fishing in its waters. But when he heard about the Explorer it underscored his latest challenge: protecting tourists from the continent itself.

In the last 15 years tourism to Antarctica has increased by 500 percent, with some 40,000 sightseers visiting in 2008 alone. As many as 50 ships from all over the world ply the Southern Ocean annually; in the past couple of years, Princess cruise line has joined the fray with a megaship that carries more than 2,600 people, a development that strikes Barnes as an awful idea.

Some scientists believe global warming has caused glaciers to shed more and more “growlers,” nasty underwater icebergs smaller than, but every bit as lethal as what brought down the Titanic. Although other experts may dispute the role of climate change, most agree that there’s a lot of really frightening stuff floating in those waters now. “What is clear is that some major ice shelves have broken up in recent years,” says Daniel Smale, lead author of a recent study for the British Antarctic Survey on marine life under the region’s ice. “So it seems highly likely that the volume of ice floating around the Antarctic Peninsula has increased.”

Besides the aptly named growlers, the Antarctic boasts a dizzying array of dangers for vessels: blinding whiteouts, blizzards, sleet-driving winds, sea ice, and dangerous shoals that can be masked by ice fields. Sailors have a saying about the Southern Ocean, which lies well below the 50-degree latitude line: Below 40 degrees, there is no law. Below 50 degrees, there is no God.

Critics of uncontrolled tourism are quick to add a few more items to the list of hazards: the lack of ice pilots on some ships, inexperienced captains and crew, outdated open lifeboats, and tourists physically unprepared to go onto the open sea. The “exploration”-class trips (like the Explorer’s) do require elderly passengers to take the itinerary to their doctors for approval beforehand, but other ships are open to anyone, regardless of fitness or age — factors that can greatly increase a person’s vulnerability during a sea emergency. And, crucially, some of the larger ships — built for warm Caribbean waters or the North Atlantic — do not have ice-reinforced hulls.

“They’re accidents waiting to happen,” says Barnes, who was joined recently by a raft of environmentalists, organizations like the International Hydrographic Organization (which charts the world’s oceans), and governments (the U.S., U.K., and France among them) concerned about the veritable explosion of tourism in the Southern Ocean.

Ironically, the MS Explorer was touted as the prototypical Antarctic cruiser. Built in 1969, it was the first designed specifically to take passengers into polar waters. The ship had a captain and crew who had done the Antarctic run many times. G.A.P Adventures, the respected tour company that owned the Explorer, called it “the go-anywhere ship for the go-anywhere traveler.”

The Explorer accident was only one of a series of recent troubling incidents. In January 2007 a Norwegian expedition vessel, the MS Nordkapp, slammed into rocks near Deception Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, cracking its reinforced hull. The accident resulted in the 404-foot Nordkapp limping into nearby Maxwell Bay for repairs. The following December, the MS Fram — owned by the same company as the Nordkapp — lost its main power for more than 40 minutes. Passengers were herded into public rooms and watched as the ship swung toward an iceberg. “We started drifting backward,” passenger Robert O’Connor said. “I saw the wall of ice coming up the starboard side.” The Fram collided with the ice, damaging a lifeboat and part of the ship.  And on December 4, 2008, the hull of the Panamanian-registered cruise ship Ushuaia was cracked by rock, spilling fuel into the ocean and forcing the rescue of its 122 passengers and crew.

But it was the Explorer accident that made the growing safety concerns luridly real. “This is not a drill,” Captain Bengt Wiman announced over the public address system minutes after the impact. “Get your arctic gear on and come immediately to the muster station!” The ship lost power and began to drift toward an ice field, where lowering the lifeboats would have been impossible. Wiman yelled at his crew to “get us the hell off the damn ship!” Passengers milled about as confusion reigned over which lifeboats they should board. Only after they all were already in the four lifeboats did they find that three had engines that wouldn’t start.

“We drifted under the forward lifeboat, which, if released, would have come down on top of us,” recalled naval architect Andy White. “No one seemed to be in charge and it was very much left to the passengers to work out what to do.” They got the boats down to the water, but an oar snapped as passengers tried to push away from the sinking ship. As the hours went by, Charne, dressed only in a thermal shirt, long underwear, pants, jacket, thin socks, and one glove, felt himself growing weaker. “I was freezing,” he remembers. “There was one point when I couldn’t feel my toes, and I thought I was going to lose them. I wondered if I was dying.” The boats bobbed on five-to-10-foot swells; if the waves had been only a few feet higher, the boats could have been easily swamped. In a Hollywood disaster-movie cliché, a Danish man proposed to his girlfriend.

Eighty nautical miles away the passenger ship MS Nordnorge received the Explorer’s distress calls. Its captain quickly turned its bow and steamed toward the sinking ship, arriving nearly five hours later. “You simply cannot imagine the frightful scene that greeted us,” recalled Nordnorge passenger Taylor Echlin. “Four lifeboats filled with wet, tired, scared people were being towed toward our ship by the black rubber dinghies.” The rescue brought the crew and passengers safely onboard, and the Nordnorge sailed off to a Chilean military station, leaving the Explorer to sink after just 20 hours, a fist-size hole in its hull. Soon after the rescue, a fierce blizzard swept over the spot of the accident. “I don’t think we would have made it another two hours out there,” Charne says.

The Explorer incident has not inspired any industry-wide changes to equipment, training, or procedures. G.A.P Adventures did acquire a new ship, the MS Expedition, and put $15 million into retrofitting it for Antarctic tours. “We’ve done a lot of things differently as far as safety goes,” says Bruce Poon Tip, G.A.P’s president. “It’s got the latest of everything, including enclosed life rafts. But we still believe the Explorer accident was a one-off thing.”

Barnes and others are pushing for bigger changes. As dangerous as the Southern Ocean is for cruising, the tourism industry there is essentially unregulated. Anyone with a ship or a yacht can become a tour operator; a three-day cruise to the Bahamas is more tightly controlled than a journey to the bottom of the Earth. Barnes et al. advocate new rules for all Antarctic tourist outfits, including preventing the establishment of visitor facilities on the continent itself (believing that infrastructure would encourage even more tourism in the region) and, crucially, banning ships that carry more than 500 passengers.

John Splettstoesser, a retired geologist and an adviser to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an industry group, believes the dangers are overstated. “I’ve watched their procedures very closely,’’ he says of the megaships. “They’re supercautious. If the captain sees ice, he goes the other way.”

Barnes doesn’t buy that argument. “The IAATO’s guidelines are not legally binding even on their own members,” he says.

But for all the danger, the desire to see the pure landscapes of Antarctica is deep and abiding. Even Eli Charne is going again, despite the “vivid, strange dreams” that he’s experienced since the Explorer accident. “I feel this is something I need to complete,” he says.

Charne, however, has chosen an icebreaker for his return trip — and booked a cabin above the water line.

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