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Passenger deaths on Antarctic cruises prompt Coast Guard investigation

Four U.S. citizens died and others were injured in the span of a few weeks late last year

Eco-tourists aboard expedition ship Plancius. (Arterra/Getty Images)
3 min

Four U.S. citizens died and more were injured during Antarctic cruises late last year, leading the U.S. Coast Guard to investigate four incidents that occurred in a span of less than three weeks.

According to a news release, Netherlands-based U.S. Coast Guard Activities Europe, the National Transportation Safety Board and other global investigators sent teams to Ushuaia, Argentina, a common departure point for Antarctica cruises. The U.S. military service said it would “commence thorough safety investigations with the goal of improving marine safety and preventing similar tragic incidents.”

More than 50,000 expedition cruise tourists visited Antarctica in the 2019-2020 season, The Washington Post has reported, while another 18,000 were only able to observe from bigger cruise ships.

The recent incidents took place on foreign-flagged vessels between Nov. 15 and Dec. 1; the travel season for Antarctica generally stretches from November through March.

Two U.S. citizens died Nov. 15 when they were on an inflatable boat that capsized with six passengers on board near Elephant Island in Antarctica. The inflatable came from the World Explorer, a ship chartered by polar adventure company Quark Expeditions.

Quark Expeditions said in a statement that the “tragic accident during a Zodiac excursion” appeared to have been caused by a breaking wave. Passengers on Antarctic cruises are able to get closer to wildlife or natural features on heavy-duty inflatable boats called Zodiacs.

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The operator said in a statement Wednesday that it was aware of the Coast Guard’s announcement and pledged to “continue to cooperate fully with the investigation.”

Because the World Explorer flies a Portuguese flag, Portugal is the lead investigative state. The Coast Guard is investigating “as a substantially interested state with NTSB support.”

Investigators are also looking into two incidents on Viking Polaris, a Norwegian-flagged vessel. In one, a U.S. citizen was hurt during a mishap on an inflatable boat that the Coast Guard described as a keel-bladder failure near Damoy Point.

The other incident aboard Viking Polaris was highly publicized. Late the night of Nov. 29, as the 378-passenger ship was sailing toward Ushuaia, a rogue wave struck the ship, Viking Cruises said. One U.S. citizen died and four others were hurt.

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The Coast Guard described the wave as a “large wave” and said it hit the ship in the Drake Passage, the notoriously rough body of water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands.

Norway is the lead investigative state in both incidents; the Coast Guard is investigating as a “substantially interested state” with NTSB support.

In the fourth incident, a U.S. citizen died of an injury that occurred aboard Plancius, a Dutch-flagged vessel operated by Oceanwide Expeditions. The Coast Guard is investigating with authorities from the Netherlands and the Falkland Islands.

Franklin Braeckman, Antarctic program manager for Oceanwide Expeditions, said in an email that the person died following an “accidental fall” on the vessel that did not take place during any activity or landing.

“Medical support was provided immediately, after which we arranged an evacuation,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, however, these measures were not sufficient to change the tragic outcome of the accident.”

Viking did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to the families of those impacted by these tragedies,” Capt. Gretchen Bailey, the commanding officer of Coast Guard Activities Europe, 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.”