Indagare member Lara Rubin, who is traveling on one of the ships enlisted to aid the sinking Explorer, sent us an eyewitness account of last night’s Antarctic rescue.
“In the spirit of past explorers and adventurers who encountered hardship in Antarctica, we passengers and crew of the National Geographic Endeavour took part in an amazing maritime rescue on our Thanksgiving voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula.
On November 23, instead of getting to walk within fifteen feet of gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies, we watched a listing ship slowly submerge as all of its passengers and crew bobbed away in lifeboats and zodiacs. They huddled together in sub-freezing temperatures on what was luckily a tranquil open sea, within a half mile of an ice pack. This was another type of unforgettable scene. Only this one was very sobering.
All of us who were witnesses now realize more vividly than ever that just because technology has advanced since the time of the legendary Shackelton expedition, the desire for adventure and to experience all this planet has to offer, even in supreme comfort, may put us at great risk. Thankfully, due to the proximity and professionalism of the rescuers, no lives were lost, just the life of “the little red ship,” as those who had worked on her affectionately knew her.
We passengers on the Endeavour, first knew something was awry when awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of ‘full-speed-ahead’ engines. Surrounded by sheets of ice pack and icebergs, this did not seem to be part of the plan announced before bed that we would drop anchor around 1 a.m. and wake up inside the ancient volcanic caldera of Deception Island.
Instead, our Expedition Leader confirmed the change with a wake-up call at 5:45 a.m., informing the whole ship that the Explorer, the first expedition class ship ever built, had issued a distress call, and that we, and the Norwegian registered Nord Norge, were steaming towards the accident scene. Apparently all 154 passengers and crew had been evacuated and had been in the lifeboats for almost four hours. Direct contact with the crew of the Explorer had only recently been made, so they were unsure as to what we would see upon arrival.
Since the Nord Norge, a ferry in the “off-season,” had empty cabins for all passengers and crew of the Explorer, she was assigned the role of OSC, On Scene Coordinator, by the disaster center in Valparaiso, Chile. We were to be the “Emergency Room,” should any of the evacuees require medical care, as well as in charge of gathering any items that could be salvaged from the damaged ship. It was clear upon sighting her, and confirmed by our Captain, there was nothing that either of the first responders could do to save the abandoned ship. All the crew of the Endeavour could do was to help get the passengers and crew of the Explorer safely on board the Nord Norge. And that they did. A Chilean helicopter helped spot the Explorer’s orange and white lifeboats and zodiacs from the air, as black and orange zodiacs from the Endeavour and Nord Norge, piloted by men and women in bulky, orange Mustang survival suits, quickly darted after drifting boats. Using ropes to tow the boats closer to the Nord Norge (some of the engines on the life boats had not started), the ashen-faced survivors were first transferred to the rescuing zodiacs, and then transferred to the Nord Norge. Most were clad in Mylar sacks to keep warm. Some had no gloves. Some had backpacks. All seemed very grateful that their experience in the open sea was about to end.
Those of us on the deck of the Endeavour did not say a word. The only sounds audible were clicks of camera shutters and the whir of the rescue boat engines, and the occasional shout of an order from the sea 200ft away from us. With speed, grace and the utmost of maritime professionalism, all passengers were put on board the Nord Norge within the hour.
Once ‘released’ from our role in the rescue operation, our Captain circled the now badly listing Explorer and sounded the horn as if to honor all the years of service she gave to those who worked on her, and those who sailed the world with her. We then returned to our previously prepared itinerary, receiving updates that all passengers had been safely evacuated to Chile the following day.
As we steamed south, the images permanently beveled in my mind were of the evacuated lifeboats, floating back, almost instinctually, towards their sinking mother ship.
More details will emerge that hopefully will begin to answer a myriad of questions: What really happened? What is the difference between an iceberg and what the current owners of the Explorer are telling the press was “a piece of ice underwater” that caused her to take on so much water? How many accidents have occurred down here since the first expedition ship, ironically the Explorer herself, came down here in the early 70’s? What will happen to Antarctic tourism—will it be stifled? Will it grow? Is the Antarctic Treaty and the maritime rules that govern this desolate, unforgettable place strong enough to protect it? What is the role of those of us who are fortunate enough to come to Antarctica, to protect its health?
Our Captain feared that unless the Explorer could be salvaged, there would be ‘catastrophic’ implications for Antarctic tourism. As it turns out, the Explorer, in addition to being the first expedition ship in Antarctic waters, was also the first passenger ship to sink here. So now, only time will tell as to how many others will be able to witness and experience the magical sights, the ice, and the animals of the land and seas of the seventh continent.
Only time will tell.”
Members read advice on the best ways to travel to Antarctica
Read a member postcard on another voyage to Antarctica
Indagare members receive special invitations and offers on Abercrombie and Kent’s Antarctic expeditions. For details and to book, contact our bookings department by calling 212-988-2611 or sending an inquiry