The first cruise ship built to ply the frigid waters off Antarctica became the first to sink there Friday. The red-hulled Explorer struck ice, taking on water as 154 passengers and crew members scrambled to safety aboard lifeboats and rafts. The ship later went to the bottom.
The 38-year-old vessel was in the middle of a 19-day voyage when it sent a distress call early Friday after its hull was punctured. A Norwegian cruise ship rescued the passengers and crew nearly two hours after they abandoned ship in freezing weather.
"It was submerged ice, and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull, so it began taking on water . . . but quite slowly," Susan Hayes, a spokeswoman for the ship's owner, GAP Adventures, told the Associated Press. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever."
Smallish and with a hull designed to withstand ice, the Explorer pioneered a trade that opened up Antarctica's wonders to people other than scientists and explorers. Today about 37,000 people a year visit the frozen continent on tour ships.
The 91 passengers aboard the Explorer included at least 13 Americans, 23 Britons and 10 Canadians, according to Canadian-based GAP Adventures, which bought the ship three years ago. Along with 54 crew members and nine guides, they were taken to a Chilean air base on nearby King George Island. From there, they were to be flown to the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas.
The National Geographic Endeavour, another Antarctic cruise ship, was about 52 nautical miles away when its crew heard the Explorer's distress call at 1:37 a.m. Friday. The captain of the Endeavour, Oliver Kruess, stayed in regular contact with the Explorer as he traveled at full speed toward the damaged ship.
At 4:50 a.m. Kruess learned that the captain and the chief officer of the Explorer had abandoned ship, about 20 minutes after the passengers, staff and other crew members were evacuated to lifeboats.
Kruess reached the scene at 6:30 a.m. with the Norwegian ship, the Nordnorge. The Explorer "was listing heavily to starboard at an angle of possibly about 25 degrees," Kruess wrote in an incident report filed Friday. "The water level on her starboard side was reaching the restaurant window level."
In calm seas, the passengers were moved onto the Nordnorge in less than an hour.
Nordnorge Capt. Arnvid Hansen told BBC TV in a telephone interview that the passengers didn't appear to be frightened. "They were a little bit cold and wet, but in good condition," he said as his ship sailed toward the Chilean base. "We brought on board warm clothes and food and accommodations, so they are in a good mood now."
Traveling to Antarctica is always risky because of ice, said Hayes, the GAP spokeswoman.