Expedition Cruising - Is Antarctica getting too crowded?
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Expedition Cruising - Is Antarctica getting too crowded?

More Cruisers for Antarctica

During the 2006/07 Antarctic season 9,693 Americans, 4,518 Brits, 4,082 Germans and 2,756 Australians landed in Antarctica out of a total of 29,576. The 2007/08 total is expected to be around 34,000. With Silversea introducing its Prince Albert II next week, Lindblad Expeditions the National Geographic Explorer and GAP Adventures buying a ship to replace its own Explorer, lost in the Antarctic last November, there is much new for visitors to the Antarctic.
New money is also going into the expedition business and main line cruise operators are planning a "scenic" invasion that could see close to 50,000 tourists sail to the seventh continent next year. But one question remains. What if there is an accident?

New Expedition Ships

Last week brought news that GAP Adventures of Toronto had purchased the 345-foot Viking Line ferry Alandsfarjan for ?2.6 million. GAP intends to convert the 6,172-ton Ice Class 1B Swedish ferry, to be delivered later this month, into an expedition ship that will replace its ill-fated 108-passenger Explorer, lost in Antarctic waters in November.
This year, GAP chartered the 98-passenger Russian ship Polaris, a near-sister to the original Explorer, as a stop-gap measure. As presently configured with bow and stern doors and car decks, as well as no major overnight accommodation, the new 1972-built acquisition will need some major conversion work before she can go into service as an expedition ship.
Meanwhile, next week sees the inaugural voyage of Silversea Cruises' first expedition ship, the 120-passenger Prince Albert II, which leaves London on June 12 for islands of the Atlantic, Norway and Spitsbergen.

Acquired last year from Sembawang Shipyards in Singapore, the Ice Class 1A 6,072-ton Prince Albert II was previously Society Expeditions' rather luxurious World Discoverer II, but has lain idle since that company went out of business five years ago. Two weeks after the Prince Albert II leaves London, Lindblad Expeditions' new Ice Class 1A 148-guest National Geographic Explorer enters service.
Formerly Hurtigruten's 6,167-ton Lyngen, this 1982-built coastal mail boat, now being converted in Las Palmas into a much-reinforced 350-foot expedition ship, leaves her old home port of Bergen on June 26 for her own first voyage, to the Norwegian fjords and Spitsbergen.
Meanwhile, Oceanwide Expeditions of the Netherlands is planning to convert the former 2,977-ton Dutch oceanographic ship Tydeman into the 296-foot expedition ship Plancius, full details of which have not yet been announced. For 2008 and 2009, however, they will use the 84-passenger chartered Chilean vessel Antarctic Dream.

Corporate Changes

A lot has also happened recently in terms of the ownership of expedition companies, particularly as First Choice Holidays, the UK holiday company that is now part of Germany's TUI, has acquired a fistful of expedition companies, not only marine but also land-based, in a move to diversify away from mainstream travel.

It started with First Choice's ?9.5 million acquisition of Melbourne-based Peregrine Adventures in November 2005, along with the operation of the 110-passenger Akademik Ioffe and Akademik Sergey Vavilov. The very next month First Choice announced the purchase of St Louis-based INTRAV, operating the 122-guest Clipper Adventurer and 128-berth Clipper Odyssey (as well as the smaller US-flag Nantucket Clipper and Yorktown Clipper, which were sold on to Cruise West).

Finally, last May, when Quark Expeditions founder Lars Wikander announced his retirement, First Choice revealed that it was also buying Connecticut-based Quark, whose fleet consisted of one owned ship, the 82-passenger Ocean Nova, and a number of chartered Russian and Ukrainian ships. These included the 120-passenger icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, the 110-berth Lyubov Orlova, the 50-passenger Akademik Shokalskiy and Professor Multanovskiy,and the 100-passenger nuclear icebreaker Yamal, which it uses for one or two voyages to the North Pole every year.
All previous operations of Peregrine and Clipper have now been brought together under Quark, which has gained new offices in Melbourne and St Louis.

By summer, Quark sublets the Lyubov Orlova to Cruise North Expeditions of Toronto, which offers cruises from Kuujjuaq, Quebec, (formerly Fort Chimo) to Baffin Island and Hudson Bay.
Cruise North is owned by Makkovik Corporation, a native company, and had previously used the 66-passenger Argentine ship Ushuaia. A few days after announcing its acquisition of Quark, First Choice announced that the sale of Clipper Adventurer and Clipper Odyssey to International Shipping Partners (ISP) of Miami, but with the charter back of the Clipper Adventurer for the next five Antarctic seasons. The Clipper Odyssey will be used by Zegrahm Expeditions of Seattle and Noble Caledonia of London.

ISP itself has greatly expanded its own activities in the small ship sector, particularly in connection with the Clipper Group of Denmark.
It also manages the 112-passenger Island Sky for Noble Caledonia, the 60-passenger Quest for Polar Quest of Gothenburg and the 112-berth Corinthian II, which will sail the Antarctic for Travel Dynamics of New York, in addition to Quark's Ocean Nova, a near sister of the Quest.
As well as these smaller vessels, over the past year Clipper, through ISP, has begun to acquire a number of medium-size cruise ships for charter to other operators.
Not related to Quark, but also owned by TUI, is Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, whose four-ship fleet includes two highest ice class expedition ships, the 184-guest Hanseatic and 164-berth Bremen, in the upmarket sector.

With a sale of Hapag-Lloyd AG by TUI now a possibility, its cruise operation, if not included, may soon be in need of a new name. Hapag-Lloyd will perform two Northwest Passage cruises in the summer of 2009, with the Hanseatic and Bremen crossing the Canadian Arctic in opposite directions. The pairs will meet in Cambridge Bay for a barbecue that will also be attended by the line's managing director from Hamburg.
Meanwhile, Hapag-Lloyd is so heavily sold out on Antarctica departures that it raises the question of how or when it might add more capacity to fulfil this demand.

At the end of last month, it was announced that KSL Capital Partner had acquired Orion Expedition Cruises of Melbourne, who operate the 106-passenger Ice Class E3 Orion, built in Germany in 2003. The new owners said there would soon be fleet expansion by way of newbuildings and/or second-hand acquisitions.
Orion operates from Australian ports to the Antarctic, the Kimberley, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia and Asia. All of these ships carry only 100 or so passengers and are equipped with zodiacs to land their passengers to observe wildlife (including seals, whales and of course the many varieties of penguins), the area's spectacular scenery and international research stations, many of which are now historic sites.

Big Ships, Inexperienced Crews

The Antarctic tourist season, which normally runs from November to March, has flourished in the past fifteen years, growing from around 6,500 visitors in 1997 to 30,000 in 2007, or five times in a decade.
Part of this huge growth has come from main line cruise operators that operate larger ships than the adventure companies. Beginning in 1993 with Orient Lines' 848-passenger Marco Polo, now operating for Transocean Tours of Bremen, this grew when the 710-berth Discovery joined her in 2001 after being acquired by Voyages of Discovery.

Two newer Norwegian Hurtigruten ships, the 500-passenger Fram and 690-passenger Nordnorge have also joined this sector. These ships limit the number of passengers they carry in the Antarctic to between 350 and 400 in order to be able to perform landings. Even then, as not all passengers can be landed at one time, they must do so in stages.
Others in this category include Saga, Peter Deilmann and now Transocean.
More recently, lines such as Holland America and Princess, the big two in Alaska, have scheduled cruises to the Antarctic. These larger ships do not offer landings but something they call "scenic cruising" of the "dazzling landscape" of the Antarctic.
This year, the Golden Princess carried 2,425 passengers and 1,120 crew to the Antarctic, and her sister ship Star Princess is to do the same in 2009.
Holland America's Rotterdam, which can carry up to 1,668 passengers, also made a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula in January. The latest to join the fray, with an announcement last month, is Celebrity Cruises, whose Celebrity Infinity, which can carry up 2,450 passengers, will perform two Antarctic cruises in 2010.
Of the upmarket cruise lines, only Crystal has sent the 960-passenger Crystal Symphony on such "scenic" cruises.

What worries people most about these ships is not just the huge numbers of souls they can carry to isolated locations and the lack of Antarctic knowledge among their officers and crews, but also the fact that the owners of these ships do not feel it is necessary to have double hulls or even ice-strengthening to navigate these waters, not to mention the risk of pollution from the heavy oil that these ships burn as opposed to the lighter diesel used by most expedition ships.

What if there is an accident?

Last year, at about 3 am on November 23, GAP Adventure's Explorer was holed by ice near King George Island, taking on water and beginning to list.
All 154 passengers and crew were evacuated after about 5 hours in lifeboats and she sank about 15 hours later. The Explorer had been built in 1969 as the Lindblad Explorer, the pioneer Antarctica expedition ship, designed for navigating these waters.
Ten years ago, at 1:30 am on December 15, 1998, Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas struck Proselyte Reef in Great Bay, St Maarten, causing a 130 by 7 foot gash in her starboard hull.
All 2,557 passengers had to be evacuated by tender and flown home after the ship started taking on water.

One of her officers at the time recently told this author that the ship would have sunk had her master not taken quick action to ground her on a nearby sandbank, something that the subsequent investigation said would take a minumum of about 12 hours. Ninety years ago, at about 2 am on October 24, 1918, Canadian Pacific's Princess Sophia, en route from Skagway to Juneau, Alaska, grounded on Vanderbilt Reef in the Lynn Canal.
All 343 passengers and crew lost their lives 39 hours later after heavy weather prevented rescue efforts and she slipped off the reef and sank in deep water.
Lost in time, this tragedy was completely overshadowed by the end of the First World War a few days later.
In the case of the Explorer, winds were not high and there was no fog at the time.

In the case of the Monarch of the Seas, despite the large numbers involved, help was as near as the closest shore tender by which the ship's passengers were rescued.
In the case of the Princess Sophia, though, even though she was in isolated waters, help was at hand. But over a period of almost two days the weather prevented anyone from being rescued before she sank, taking all with her within sight of land.
As it happens, as the National Geographic Explorer is in drydock at Las Palmas, her 110-berth fleetmate National Geographic Endeavour is also there, undergoing some work of her own.
She had participated along with the Nordnorge in the Explorer rescue in November. As for the Nordnorge, the Explorer rescue was actually her second of the year, as in January she had been called to evacuate 294 passengers from her sister ship Nordkapp after she ran aground off Deception Island, something that forced the cancellation of the rest of her 2007 season.
And just this January, Hurtigruten gave 50% refunds to passengers of the Fram, the Nordkapp's replacement, after her engines failed and she drifted into ice at Brown's Bluff during her Christmas cruise to Antarctica.
After receiving ice damage to one of her lifeboats, she had to cancel her subsequent cruise as well.

As well as the natural threats of wind, weather, ice and grounding, not to mention machinery failure, there is the hazard of fire. In March 2006, the Star Princess, which is scheduled to sail to Antarctica in 2009, suffered a fire in which one died and eleven were injured.
At the time, she was sailing between Grand Cayman and Jamaica and help was nearby.
But in Antarctica help can be 36 to 48 hours away across the Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of water in the world. To quote a cruise expert who has sent many adventurers to the Antarctic, "When Explorer sank they had just 154 people to rescue. Twenty times that many would be a catastrophe."

To send ships to the Antarctic without double hulls, let alone any ice strengthening, is probably begging for something to happen and it might behoove the 46 nation members of the Antarctic Treaty Organization to have a look at this.
There is a saying in shipping that the more times you move something, the more chance there is of damaging it, and the same holds true of ships.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), possibly in an attempt to be able to control them, has allowed the owners of larger cruise ships to become members. In an effort to do so, since 2001 it has required that ships carrying more than 500 passengers make no landings in the Antarctic.
IAATO, founded by seven private members in 1991, now consists of 104 private companies, 44 of which are full members and five of these are cruise lines.

There is a precedent that some IAATO members already have to follow at the other end of the world. A good set of regulations exists in Canada, which has its own set of rules for Arctic waters. Caled the Arctic Ice Regime Shipping System, it was designed to enforce the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act of 1970.
Although the Arctic suffers from multi-year pack ice, it includes areas that have only seasonal ice and the scheme, whlle complicated, may be worth a look.
But the main question is should ships with no ice strengthening be allowed to cruise the Antarctic?

(Source: By Mark Tré - Cybercruises.com)

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