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