Geographic Ship First to Scene of Antarctic Sinking

Jon Bowermaster in the Antarctic
for National Geographic News
November 26, 2007
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.

The ship—the first to bring tourists to Antarctica in 1969—had apparently hit an iceberg on day 12 of a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. According to a crewmember, the floating hazard had made a hole in the hull "the size of a fist."

As we arrived at the site, so did the big, 700-passenger Norwegian tour ship the Nordnorge. Since it had room onboard to accommodate all of the survivors, it would end up coordinating the rescue operation.

We also learned that a Brazilian navy ship was on its way, while the air above filled with the buzz of an arriving Chilean navy helicopter.

When we reached the line of lifeboats and Zodiacs, the passengers—most wearing hooded, orange thermal blankets—appeared uninjured, though they were wet and seemingly stunned. A few of the passengers wore no gloves.

All I could think about was what must have gone through their minds when they saw the two big ships—the National Geographic Endeavour and the Nordnorge—steaming over the horizon, coming to the rescue.

Lucky Survivors

The passengers of the Explorer were extremely lucky. They had been on the water a relatively short time and the weather—for Antarctica—was calm.

If they had dropped the lifeboats into a more typical Antarctic morning of blustery winds or rolling fog, the morning's outcome may have been drastically different. The water's temperature was hovering around freezing, and with the wind chill it felt even colder—a perfect combination for hypothermia.

That there were boats nearby—the Endeavour was only about 60 miles (100 kilometers) away when the distress call came in—was fortunate too.

As the rescue operation continued, with no apparent serious injury among the passengers, the Explorer listed heavily to starboard. Waves washed onto its decks and pounded away at its name, written in bold, orange letters on a hull nearly underwater.

Dotting the sea all around were the now empty lifeboats. The Brazilian ship would pick them up when it arrived.

It was a sad end to an enterprising expedition ship that had paved the way for the Antarctic tourist industry.

For all of us who watched, it was a sobering reminder that accidents in Antarctica happen suddenly and with powerful impact.

But as Kruess said from the bridge as we slowly motored past the sinking ship, it's "better for her to end her life out here than rusting at a dock somewhere."

Though it appeared the ship would sink within hours, two days later we were still hearing reports that Explorer refused to go down, now riding like a cork in the ice pack off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

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