Too many cruising accidents? Coast Guard opens investigation into Antarctica cruise casualties




The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the deaths and injuries of Americans on cruise ships sailing in and around Antarctica late last year.




The U.S. Coast Guard Activities Europe, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and international flag administrations are looking into incidents on foreign-flagged vessels that occurred between Nov. 15 and Dec. 1.


The investigations include an incident in November when a rogue wave hit the Viking Polaris ship on its way to Ushuaia, Argentina. One person died and four others were injured. Norway is the lead investigative state on the case.


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“Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of those impacted by these tragedies,” Coast Guard Activities Europe commanding officer Capt. Gretchen Bailey said in a news release. “The safety of U.S. passengers aboard ships throughout the globe is a priority for the U.S. Coast Guard. We are proud to work alongside the NTSB and our international partners to investigate these incidents and make meaningful safety improvements for worldwide passenger vessel operations, especially in unique high-risk environments like the Antarctic.”


What incidents is the Coast Guard investigating?


The investigations include several other incidents:


► When an inflatable boat from Viking Polaris “sustained a keel-bladder failure near Damoy Point, Antarctica,” a U.S. citizen got hurt, according to the release. Norway is the lead investigative state on that case as well.


► Two U.S. citizens died after an inflatable boat from Quark Expeditions’ World Explorer ship capsized close to Elephant Island, Antarctica. The boat was carrying six passengers at the time. Portugal is the lead investigative state.


► A U.S. citizen died after getting hurt on board Oceanwide Expeditions’ Plancius ship. The Coast Guard is investigating in coordination with Netherlands and Falkland Islands officials.

Viking, Quark Expeditions and Oceanwide Expeditions did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment on the investigations.


The U.S. will help with the Viking Polaris and World Explorer investigations “as a substantially interested state in accordance with International Maritime Organization protocols and Coast Guard policy,” the Coast Guard said in the release.


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The Coast Guard and the NTSB, as well as the lead investigative states, also sent teams to conduct safety investigations in Ushuaia, Argentina – a common point of departure for Antarctica expeditions – in order to prevent other similar incidents.


How often do those incidents happen?


There are potential hazards that come with visiting Antarctica, said Stewart Chiron, a cruise industry expert known as The Cruise Guy.


“It’s not a sunny, calm sailing around the Caribbean Sea,” he told USA TODAY in an email.


Death and injury are “inherent but rare risks while visiting Antarctica but shouldn’t be overriding factors,” he said. “As more people and ships sail in the region, there will be increased incidents.”


Rogue waves, for their part, are more than twice the size of surrounding waves, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They are dangerous and unpredictable, but uncommon.


Cruise and tour operators will keep doing everything they can to keep minimize dangers and hiccups, and provide safe travel experiences, according to Chiron. While he advised travelers to be aware of the risks before going, they may find the journey plenty worth it. “Observing the wildlife and the ice sheets can be quite rewarding,” he said. “Visiting a destination seen by so few can be quite fulfilling.”