Antarctic Cruise Ship Runs Aground; Oil Leak Spreading?

National Geographic News
December 5, 2008
A cruise ship stranded itself on Antarctica's western peninsula on Thursday, and may be leaking unknown amounts of oil into the fragile oceans, one expert said.

All 122 passengers and crew were rescued from the leaking ship, Ushuaia, on Friday by the Chilean Navy. The ship did not appear to be in danger of sinking.

The Chilean vessel Aquiles transported 89 passengers and 33 crew members to the Presidente Frei Naval Base in Antarctica.

Jon Bowermaster, a National Geographic Expeditions Council grantee and writer, was on the National Geographic Explorer about 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) from the cruise ship when it ran aground after hitting a rock. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

"We were in the same area on Wednesday, when hurricane force winds blew for much of the day, gusting over 100 miles [161 kilometers] per hour," Bowermaster told National Geographic News in an email from the Explorer.

"The Ushuaia reported having been in heavy weather; whether or not this contributed to its [grounding] is speculation, but would make sense."

Bowermaster witnessed the sinking of another Antarctic tourist vessel in November 2007. All 154 passengers of the Canadian M.S. Explorer escaped safely. (Watch a video aboard the sinking ship.)

Alarm Call

The Panamanian-flagged Ushuaia sent out alarms midday Thursday after it started leaking fuel and taking on water.

A rock damaged the hull as the vessel passed through the Gerlache Strait, Chilean Captain Pedro Ojeda told Argentina's Telam news agency. The crash left the boat adrift in Guillermina Bay.

The Chilean Navy said the cruise ship was carrying 14 Danish passengers, 12 Americans, 11 Australians, 9 Germans, 7 Argentines, 7 British, 6 Chinese, 6 Spaniards, 5 Swiss, 3 Italians, 2 French, 2 Canadians, 2 Irish, a Belgian and a New Zealander. All were in good condition.

The cruise ship, built in 1970, operates from the Port of Ushuaia in southern Argentina, transporting passengers to Antarctica and islands in the icy waters of the South Atlantic.

Environmental Dangers?

The navy positioned the ship Lautaro near the abandoned Ushuaia in an attempt to prevent any environmental damage from leaking fuel.

But Bowermaster said it's still unknown how much fuel oil has spilled from the ship.

"A Chilean plane reports seeing no major leak, but it [has] also reported that a fuel leak has spread for half a mile around the ship," he wrote.

"Though containment efforts are being made, it is windy in the area again and the leak is spreading."

Ushuaia may not be able to free itself from the rocks, and has at least one hole, Bowermaster added.

"A sinking ship in this pristine, narrow channel would have long-lasting impact on both the local environment and the future of tourism along the [Antarctic] Peninsula."

"Accident Waiting to Happen"

In addition to the 2007 sinking of the M.S. Explorer, another ship—the Norwegian M.S. Fram—lost engine power during an electrical outage in December 2007 and struck a glacier, smashing a lifeboat but causing no injuries among its 300 passengers.

A boom in Antarctic tourism may be an "accident waiting to happen," Bowermaster told National Geographic News in 2007.

More than 30,000 tourists were estimated to have made the trek to Antarctica on some 50 different ships during the November 2007 to February 2008 cruise season, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, a trade group.

"A big question for those who oversee and monitor tourism in Antarctica is [whether] there be limits on who can visit Antarctica, and on what kind of ship?" Bowermaster added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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