BUENOS AIRES – The first cruise ship ever built to ply the frigid waters off Antarctica became the first ever to sink there Friday. The red-hulled M/S Explorer struck ice, took on water as 154 passengers and crew members scrambled to safety aboard lifeboats and rafts, then 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 morning after puncturing its hull. A Norwegian cruise ship rescued those onboard nearly two hours after they abandoned ship in subfreezing temperatures.
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. About 37,000 people a year experience the great frozen continent from tour ships.
The 91 passengers aboard the Explorer included at least 13 Americans, 23 Britons and 10 Canadians, according to Canada-based G.A.P. Adventures, which bought the ship three years ago. Along with 54 crew members and nine guides, they were taken to nearby King George Island, where Friday evening they waited to be flown to the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas.
“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,” said G.A.P. Adventures spokeswoman Susan Hayes. “The passengers are absolutely fine. They’re all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever.”
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 2:50 a.m. the Explorer reported that it had lost propulsion and was drifting toward ice, Kruess wrote in an incident report filed Friday to Lindblad Expeditions, which owns the Endeavour. A 4 a.m. message said that power had been restored, but at 4:30 the ship reported progressive flooding in its sanitary system and that passengers were in lifeboats.
Kruess was informed at 4:50 a.m. that the captain and the chief officer of the Explorer had abandoned ship.
After arriving at the scene at about 6:30 a.m. with the Norwegian ship the Nordnorge, Kruess took stock of Explorer from aboard his own vessel. It “was listing heavily to starboard at an angle of possibly about 25 degrees,” Kruess wrote.
In subfreezing temperatures and calm seas, the passengers were moved onto the Nordnorge in less than an hour.
Nordnorge Capt. Arnvid Hansen told BBC television in a telephone interview that the passengers didn’t appear to be frightened during the rescue. “They was a little bit cold and wet, but in good condition,” Hansen said as his ship sailed toward a Chilean naval base.
The Explorer finally slipped beneath the waves Friday evening, about 20 hours after the predawn accident.