How to Wreck Antarctic Tours for Everyone


Now that the Academician Shokalsky research vessel  finally safe in a New Zealand port after getting trapped in the crushing Antarctic ice for 10 days, new calls are arising to restrict travel to the pristine region.


This was yet another in a long series of mishaps and miscalculations that may pose a long-term threat to the continent and the wildlife that make their homes in this land of eternal ice … never mind the hapless tourists who visit.


Sea ice trapped the Academician Shokalsky


The ship arrived at the Hodgeman islands the day before Christmas. The Russian ship, chartered by an Australian cruise line, carried 74 passengers, both scientists and tourists. Its mission was to show how global warming was melting the Antarctic ice.


While passengers were wandering around the island, the captain noticed that the wind had shifted and was pushing massive amounts of sea ice toward the vessel. He immediately radioed to the tourists to leave the island and return to the ship.


Unfortunately, the hand-held VHF radios used for communication were out of range. The passengers on shore also didn’t answer their cell phone calls. More than four hours passed before the last of the tourists arrived back at the ship.


By then, it was too late. The ice had moved in before they could sail to open water, which trapped the ship for 10 anxious days.


First rescue attempt


The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long arrived a few days later to assist the Academician Shokalsky, but it too got stuck in the heavy sea ice. The situation forced the Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis to jettison its important mission in order to try to render assistance.


The Australian captain wisely chose to stay away from the ice-choked waters and stood by in open water. On January 2, passengers were airlifted from the Academician Shokalsky to safety on the Australian vessel. Academician Shokalsky finally broke free of the ice on January 7 and sailed into open waters.


Many rules were broken


The incident raised a number of troubling questions. First, the shore party was allowed to travel to the island without required supervision. This placed all of those people at risk.


Second, regulations state that shore parties are limited to maximum travel of one hour. The shore party lingered on the island for more than four hours.


By failing to obey strict protocols, the people involved risked a disaster that could have claimed lives. Any time people are in a hostile environment, rules must be obeyed or serious consequences may follow.


The people who went on this dangerous outing would have done better to visit Croatia and enjoyed a bowl of borscht. The rescue mission cost Australia $1.8 million, and now the various parties are squabbling over who will pay.


Back in 2007, the cruise ship MV Explorer sank in Antarctic waters. A year later, the MV Ushuauia ran aground and had to be evacuated. Following these incidents, changes were made to the Antarctic Treaty to restrict cruise ship sizes and limit the number of people who can go ashore.


A balance must be found between access, safety, and ecological integrity. In the wake of the Academician Shokalsky incident, stricter rules for Antarctica access are probably coming.

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