The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently announced they would join investigations into several fatal accidents that occurred in Antarctica late last year. Although the agencies don’t typically investigate so far from the U.S., these incidents occurred in rapid succession, and all included American citizens. The USCG and NTSB have an interest in how Antarctic cruise lines are keeping American travelers safe.
Cruise ship vacations are popular but also pose potential dangers for travelers. Risks include slip and fall injuries, ship fires and engine failures, illnesses, overboard incidents, and even assaults.
Cruise lines are responsible for putting safety measures in place and following them to protect passengers. This is harder to do in more dangerous destinations, like Antarctica. Four incidents that occurred between November 15 and December 1, 2022, highlight what can happen when things go wrong:
- Two American passengers on Quark Expeditions’ World Explorer cruise ship died after capsizing in a small zodiac boat. A breaking wave may have capsized the boat in otherwise calm waters near Elephant Island. The ship’s flag state Portugal is leading an inquiry into the incident. Four passengers and two crew members survived.
- An American passenger suffered serious injuries when a keel tube failed on an inflatable boat off the coast of Damoy Point. It launched her into the air. She then fell back down and hit the boat with significant force. The crew took her to Ushuaia in Argentina for medical care. She was a passenger on the Viking Polaris.
- During the same cruise, a large wave struck the side of the Polaris as it headed toward Ushuaia. Transiting through the rough waters of the Drake Passage, the wave broke windows, killed one American passenger, and injured others.
- The fourth incident has not been reported in detail but involved an injured U.S. citizen aboard the Dutch-flagged
U.S. Agencies Joint Cruise Ship Accident Inquiries
The USCG and NTSB would not normally get involved in cruise ship incidents investigated by other countries. But the U.S. is an interested state due to the rapid succession of accidents involving four citizens.
Representatives of the agencies traveled to Ushuaia, the usual port for Antarctic cruises. There they will collaborate with agencies from Portugal, Norway, the Netherlands, and the Falkland Islands leading the inquiries. They hope that these investigations will improve safety on increasingly popular Antarctic voyages.
The Dangers of Cruising to Antarctica
Antarctica is one of the most dangerous, and difficult parts of the world to operate any kind of vessel. The waters are freezing, the weather is unpredictable and often produces rough waters, and it’s remote. If someone does get hurt, access to medical care is limited.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of these risks, Antarctica is an increasingly popular tourist destination. From 2018 to 2019, Antarctica had 50,000 visitors. That number is expected to double in 2023. Cruise lines are expanding their offerings to meet the demands.
These recent incidents raise questions about the safety and practicality of Antarctic cruises. The cruise lines are responsible for providing the safest trip possible. It’s easier to make negligent mistakes in settings that are naturally dangerous. Tourists should be aware of the risks and screen tour groups and cruise lines carefully before booking a trip to Antarctica.