Who's Responsible When a Cruise Ship Sinks in Antarctica?

The spectacle of the Clelia II cruise ship (photo below left) bouncing around by big waves and howling wind as it was trying to make its way back to Argentina from Antarctica continues to capture the attention of the American public this week.  The video of the stricken vessel on our Cruise Law's YouTube page has been viewed over 225,000 times in the last few days.

Unlike the images of Carnival's disabled-by-a-engine-fire Splendor cruise ship drifting peacefully off of the coast of Mexico several weeks ago, the photographs and video of the Clelia II show the violence of the Antarctic waters and provide a glimpse of the terror these cruise passengers must have been Clelia II - Antarcticaexperiencing.  Today USA Today's popular cruise blog, Cruise Log, carries the headline "Passenger on Storm-Tossed Cruise Ship Describes 'Terrifying' Ordeal."   

A Near Death Experience?

The Philadelphia Daily News reports a passenger's account of the little cruise ship "violently shaking and twisting," with winds reaching 100 mph and waves 30 to 40 feet high.  "I thought this was it," he said. "I never came so close to cashing it in."   The passenger contemplated what would happen if the ship went down: "they'd never find the bodies. You couldn't even think about putting out lifeboats in that sea."

Blame Game

Who is responsible if one of these small expedition vessels sinks in the waters of Antarctica?   The Clelia II ran into a bit of trouble a year ago when it scraped its hull on some underwater rocks.  In November 2007, another expedition cruise ship, the Explorer (photo below right), sank in Antarctica and the passengers bobbed around in lifeboats.  We discussed these events in an article earlier this year.  Fortunately, the weather and seas were calm when the Explorer sank, and all passenger and crew members escaped with their lives.  But if the  Explorer had faced rough weather or if the Clelia II needed to be evacuated earlier this week, the consequences would have been disastrous. 

Shell Game

When things go wrong in the freezing waters of Antarctica, one thing is certain - the ship operators, tour organizers, and travel companies begin to squirm.   

When the initial reports of the plight of the Clelia II began to emerge, numerous news sources reported that the cruise ship was operated by Polar Cruises of Bend Oregon, including CBS' Early Morning Show.   Polar Cruises' website represents on its web site that it vets the cruise ship and participates in the voyages and it seems (to me at least) to indicate that it controls and manages the Clelia II, all factors to be considered in determining the issue of the operation of the vessel.  Its website is silent (except for a disclaimer added two days ago) regarding the identity of the owner or operator of the cruise ships it promotes on its site.    

Polar Cruises - Not Us

When the story broke, Polar Cruises called and emailed us insisting that it did not operate the cruise ship. It left a comment on this blog indicating that it was just a "specialized travel agency" - a phrase never used on its own web site.  It identified Travel Dynamics International as the operator and a Greek company, "Helios Shipping" of Piraeus, Greece, as the vessel owner.  The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), a trade organization promoting the  Antarctica tour operators, also subsequently identified Travel Dynamics as the operator of the Clelia II

So is Travel Dynamics really responsible for the cruise?

Travel Dynamics - Read the Fine Print

Travel Dynamics' website, under "Responsibility" in its "Terms and Conditions" section, denies all responsibilities for the cruise and refers passengers to the ticket contract with the undisclosed vessel’s owner / operator which "constitutes the sole, legally enforceable terms of carriage."  Travel Dynamics identifies itself only as an agent for the passenger, not the owner or operator, for all transportation.  This is just the opposite of what IAATO is telling the public.

Grand Circle Travel - More Fine Print

In addition, a well known cruise community website and publication, Cruise Critic, indicates that the cruise ship had been chartered to another company called Grand Circle Travel.  Grand Circle also denies all responsibilities.  Its terms and conditions also refer to a separate owner and operator of the cruise ship but - like Polar Cruises and Travel Dynamics - it does not identify who explorer Sinking - Antarcticathese companies are.

Around and Around We Go

If any of the passengers aboard the Clelia II had been lost at sea, the families of the loved ones would face a hurdle to determine who was legally responsible.  Was this a suitable vessel for these waters?  Was the weather monitored responsibly?  Who actually employs the crew? 

The Greek vessel owner would undoubtedly claim that because it is a foreign corporation based in Greece, it is not subject to personal jurisdiction in the U.S.  All of the companies which promote the Clelia II and sell cruises may, like Polar Cruises, subsequently claim that they are just travel agencies - notwithstanding  far stretching representations to the contrary in their web sites. And all of the cruise defense lawyers  would  point to the legal fine print which purports to deny  responsibility and liability for everything. 

Can The Public Trust These Small Expedition Cruise Companies?

The "large cruise ship industry" (Royal Caribbean, Carnival)  has faced accusations of a lack of transparency over the years.  The problem lies in the disconnect between what the cruise industry says and what the public can readily see to be the truth.

These small cruise operators and their trade organization need to learn a lesson from the big ship owners and operators on what not to do in time of crisis like this.  

For example, yesterday Polar Cruises was scrambling to distance itself from being perceived as a cruise operator (which is problematic when you call yourself "Polar Cruises").  It wrote a blog article "Polar Cruises Mistakenly Named as Owner/Operator of Damaged Clelia II."  While trying to separate itself from the image of the floundering cruise ship, it still felt obligated to put its own spin on the incident, claiming that the damage was caused by a "rogue wave."   

What a whopper!   Millions of people have watched the terrifying video of the cruise ship being repeatedly pounded by one large wave after another.  Obviously, this was no smooth sailing where a "rogue wave" came out of nowhere. 

With questions about who was really operating the cruise, who actually employed the captain and crew, who was monitoring the weather conditions and navigating the vessel, legal mumbo-jumbo buried in fine print, and now a  "rogue wave" defense announced by a "travel agency," the small cruise companies are headed into rough waters in the ocean of public opinion.

 

Read our prior article on the Clelia II: The Clelia II Skirts Disaster Again in Antarctica

 

Photo credits:

Explorer   AP

Clelia II   Fiona Stewart/Garett McIntosh (via jonbowermaster.com)

The Clelia II Skirts Disaster Again in Antarctica

The partially disabled Clelia II cruise ship is facing extreme weather conditions with 88 U.S. passengers aboard as it limps back to port in Argentina after one of its engines stopped working. 

Operated by Polar Cruises, (but see comments below), the Clelia II is a Antarctica explorer vessel with a crew of around 77.   The cruise ship experienced limited maneuverability as it was navigating through the Drake Passage to Ushuaia, Argentina some 845 kilometers away.  The Buenos Aires Herald reported that the wind was blowing at about 90 km and the weather conditions were harsh.

Other news sources report that engine failed when a wave broke over the bridge of the vesse and smashed windowsl, interrupting communications and causing an electrical outage that reduced power to the port engine.

The Merco Press has an excellent article about the crisis and explains that the Clelia II sent out a distress call and is being aided by another antarctica cruise vessel, the NG Explorer, which relayed the emergency call.  The Chilean vessel ATF Lautaro was dispatched to the area to aid the cruise ship however it is located 18 hours from the Clelia II. 

The Clelia II departed on a ten day cruise on November 30th.  The cruise reportedly costs in the range of $8,000 to $15,000. 

This is not the first time this cruise ship faced an emergency.  Last December, we reported that the Clelia II was disabled in Antarctica when it ran into some underground rocks.  The operator was criticized for not timely reporting the incident and then downplaying the seriousness of the risks posed to passengers. 

The video below was filmed by passengers on the National Geographic Explorer.

Were you aboard the Clelia II during this latest incident?  Please leave us a comment below.

 

 

December 8, 2010 Update:

We were contacted by Polar Cruises who states that it is not the operator of the Clelia II.  Before this incident, the Polar Cruises website did not disclose the identity or nationality of the operators (or owners) of the Clelia II.  There is now a link at the website to a press release by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) which indicates that the Clelia II is operated by "Travel Dynamics International" and owned by "Helios Shipping of Piraeus, Greece."   

December 10, 2010 Update:

Who's Responsible When a Cruise Ship Sinks in Antarctica?

December 12, 2010 Update:

ABC News interviews passsengers after they return to Argentina.

 

Credit:  Clelia II video:  Video courtesy Fiona Stewart / Garett McIntosh (via jonbowermaster.com)

The Clelia II - Another Antarctic Cruise Ship Skirts Disaster

Explorer - Sinking - Cruise ShipThe Santiago Times reports "Luxury Cruise Ship Suffers Accident In Antarctic Peninsula."

The newspaper in Chile reports that the 100 passenger cruise ship Clelia II  has been withdrawn from service following an accident that occurred over Christmas week. 

The tour operator waited a long time before announcing the incident. 

In a statement released two weeks after the near disaster, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators said that on December 26 the Clelia II arrived at Petermann Island, Penola Strait in the Antarctica Peninsula for a passenger landing when what is characterized as "a stronger-than-anticipated current pushed it toward the rocky shoreline."

Whether this is true is unknown - this is the trade organization's spin.

It took one and one-half hours before the Clelia II's sister ship, the Corinthian II, arrived and attached a stern line to rescue the Clelia II.  If the incident was more serious, the passengers would be in quite a pickle.

The cruise line PR statement claims that "at no time during this incident was there a threat to Explorer - Sinking - Cruise Shiphuman life; passengers and crew were never in danger."

Does this statement comfort you?

It scares the hell out of me. 

I remember when the Explorer had a similar incident in Antarctica.  The Explorer scraped its hull.  The cruise line's PR people also claimed that everything was OK.  But when the photographs (shown here) emerged from the incident showing the stricken cruise ship belly up in the ice in Antarctica with the passengers huddled in lifeboat terrorized, I realized that cruising in Antarctica was not your typical Caribbean vacation.  And the cruise line PR people could not be trusted. 

Numerous news sources subsequently pointed to the negligence of the captain, faulty equipment, failed inspections, a compromised hull - as well as negligent emergency protocols - as nearly causing a mini-Titanic disaster.

Trust me, PR statements by cruise lines are inherently self-serving and must be taken with a grain of salt - or a stiff scotch!

The good news here sounds like a lucky break for the passenger sand crew aboard the Clelia II.   

It will be interesting to read the official investigation reports and determine whether there was really a threat to the passengers and crew on yet another disabled cruise ship in the freezing Antarctic waters.  

December 8, 2010 Update:

The Clelia II is in trouble again - The Clelia II Skirts Disaster Again in Antarctica

Explorer - Cruise Ship - Sinking

 

Credits: 

Photographs   Associated Press (AP)