Travel advisors on Antarctica sailing say recent deaths don't give rise to fear

A zodiac from Swan Hellenic's Vega near the shore during an Antarctica sailing.
A zodiac from Swan Hellenic's Vega near the shore during an Antarctica sailing. Photo Credit: Cheryl Rosen

Although there was a lot of chatter about recent fatalities on expedition ships sailing in Antarctica, there was little fear among the more than 100 guests aboard Swan Hellenic's new expedition ship, the Vega, which in early December sailed the region from Ushuaia, Argentina. 

Over two weeks in November, three people died while on expedition cruises in the Antarctic region. Two passengers died during a Quark Expeditions sailing of the World Explorer on Nov. 15 when a Zodiac capsized near Cape Lookout, Elephant Island. And a passenger died Nov. 29 on the Viking Polaris as it sailed toward Ushuaia, after a rogue wave incident, Viking said. 

Viking, in its first full Antarctica season, declined to offer more details and said it is "investigating the facts" and offering support to the authorities, but the Associated Press reported that a 62-year-old U.S. woman was struck by glass after the wave crashed through cabin windows during a storm. Four other passengers sustained non-life-threatening injuries, and authorities are investigating.

Quark, which has operated in Antarctica for 30 years, said in a statement that "sea travel in the polar regions comes with known risks. To mitigate those risks, we uphold rigorous safety standards supplemented with industry trainings that all staff participate in." 

Passengers and travel advisors, both on the ship and off, took the news in stride. 

"Unfortunately, all travel comes with an inherent risk, and Antarctica even more so," said Paul Cathcart, owner of Virginia-based Never Travel Solo, who was sailing on the Vega. "My clients asked if I was involved, if I'm safe. But I don't feel nervous. I just always take the necessary precautions and listen to the crew."

While it is true that rogue waves, which are twice the size of surrounding waves, are uncommon, giant waves are a fact of life in the infamous 500-mile Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. "The Drake is a very deep ocean, and the forces that create the big waves here are very severe," said the Vega's captain, Timothy Cashman, due to the collision of the Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic oceans at the tip of South America.

Cashman said crews must always be prepared and vigilant in Antarctica. Even on a Polar Class 5 ship like the Vega, with an experienced crew, he holds training sessions for the bridge crew every day. During the week of the Viking incident, he canceled three scheduled landings due to what he called "nasty winds" but otherwise made no change to onboard procedures in light of the accidents. "Zodiacs are very strong, but if you drive them into the wind going fast, they will flip," he said.

Onboard the Vega, the incidents were no longer a topic of discussion after a day or two. But the Zodiac incident did unsettle Leslie Ryan, owner of Three Seas Travel in Charlotte. But riding them herself, twice a day for five days, changed her mind.

"I was very nervous about the Zodiacs; I've never been on one before, never been to Antarctica before, and the water here is very cold," she said. 

"I took lots of video about riding the Zodiacs, loading the Zodiacs, getting out of the Zodiacs. Now I feel completely comfortable, and I can tell [clients] from personal experience what it's like."

Mary Jean Tully, founder of Tully Luxury Travel, sailed back-to-back Antarctica expeditions on the Silver Endeavour and the Seabourn Venture just after the Viking incident. She said that while the events were unfortunate, they have not made her fearful. 

"People die in car accidents every day on their way to the airport, and tragedies occur," she said. "I haven't had any clients say that they want to cancel their trips or have said that it would deter them in any way."

While not identified as the cause of either accident, the incidents have raised questions about the proliferation of ships sailing the waters of Antarctica, since they must all draw from a shrinking base of experienced polar staff.

Ashton Palmer, president of Seattle-based Expedition Trips, used to be an expedition leader in Antarctica and said that shortage of staff makes him look closely at how long a line has been operating in the region before he books a client on a trip. He also questions lines about the staff and their experience level. 

"Just as you would if you were planning a trip to Europe, you'd want people who were knowledgeable about where you are and what you are doing," Palmer said. 

Cashman, the Vega's captain, also stressed the importance of having very experienced crew in polar regions, especially Antarctica. "The bigger the waves, the more you need experienced officers," he said, adding that with more ships and many experienced people retiring, "a lot of young people are [part of the crew] for the first time."
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Cheryl Rosen contributed reporting from the Vega in Antarctica.

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