for National Geographic News
Jon Bowermaster, a National Geographic Society Expeditions Council grantee, was aboard the tour ship National Geographic Endeavour when it became the first vessel to arrive on the scene of the sinking Antarctic cruise ship Explorer.
Bowermaster recently detailed the rescue operation for National Geographic News, which is owned by the National Geographic Society.
The string of white-and-orange lifeboats strung out over a quarter-mile on the horizon ahead was an eerie sight.
On the lifeboats, being shepherded by black rubber Zodiac hovercraft, were the 154 passengers and crew of the Antarctic tourist ship Explorer. The sinking ship lay nearly flat on its side half a mile away. (Read the full story on the sinking.)
It was 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, November 24, 2007, and a soft morning sun lit up the cold ocean about 50 miles (80 kilometers) off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The relative calm and beauty of the morning lent the tragedy an immeasurable surrealness.
I was aboard a similar-size tourist ship, the National Geographic Endeavour. I had come down here for a month to represent the National Geographic Society onboard and to scout for an upcoming sea kayak expedition to the area slated to begin on New Year's Eve.
Just hours beforehand, we had stopped at nearby King George Island to drop off my kayaks. But the celebratory mood of that moment had turned dark with the 1:45 a.m. radio call from the crew of the Explorer, saying it was taking on water and that they were abandoning ship.
Stunned but Unharmed
The Endeavour's captain, Oliver Kruess, is an experienced Antarctic sailor. Our expedition was Kruess's 73rd voyage in the area.
His team had been on high alert for several hours when he sighted the sinking Explorer from 10 miles (16 kilometers) away.
The lounge of the Endeavour had been readied with blankets and first-aid equipment. On the back deck the crew had laid out pumping equipment in case there was a chance the ailing ship could be saved.
Many aboard our ship had a personal interest in the accident, since they had worked on the Explorer sometime during its 40-year-history.
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