Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Explorer Rescue

The usually chipper voice of our Expedition Leader, Tim, no longer sounded upbeat--that was the first thing I noticed as his voice came over the PA system the morning of our third day in Antarctica aboard the National Geographic Endeavour.

The PA system in each cabin cannot be turned off--it is used for a wake-up call each morning, to make people aware of lectures going on during the day, and to announce the order passengers disembark the ship during landings, among other things. The wake-up call would normally come between 7 and 8 AM, but as I squinted my eyes and peered over to my digital alarm clock on November 23rd, I knew something was wrong when the time read 5:30 AM.

Tim proceeded to announce that at 1:45 that morning, our Captain had received a distress call from the Explorer, which had been about 5 hours away at that point. He had immediately turned our ship around, and we were now about an hour away from the accident site. While typically the ship had an "open bridge" policy, meaning that any passenger could hang out in the Captain's navigation room at any time, because of this emergency, Tim asked that we please stay out of the bridge until further notice.

"This doesn't sound good," I mumbled to my husband and proceeded to shut my eyes again. When you've been dead asleep for hours in a Bonine stupor, it's hard to snap back into reality, trust me!

But an hour later, Tim's voice came over the PA once more, and said that we were nearing the Explorer and were coordinating with another ship, the Nordnorge, to rescue all of the Explorer's passengers, who at this point had been drifting at sea in life boats for about FIVE HOURS. He repeated the request that no one enter the bridge.

"You better go check it out," I grumbled to my husband, who promptly got up, grabbed all of his weather gear and his camera, and left. This was the first scene he saw... the Nordnorge a bit ahead of our ship, and black and orange Zodiacs in the water starting the rescue.

(All of the pictures in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them, but this is as big as Blogger lets me paste things in...)

About ten minutes later, it finally hit me. Good God, a ship is sinking! I hopped out of bed, bundled up, and headed outside.

I stepped into the fresh air from a door on the port (left) side of the boat. The first thing I saw was the Nordnorge, which we had pulled up closer to by the time I got on deck.

But I didn't realize it was the Nordnorge at that point. It was much bigger than our ship, and I thought, "Well that doesn't seem to be sinking..." Then I turned to my right and saw the Explorer and gasped. No pictures will ever do justice to what it was like to actually see this ship sinking in the middle of the Antarctic. Tears started rolling down my cheeks, and my heart went out to all of the people who had to abandon ship. I cannot even imagine what it must have been like to bob up and down on the waves in the cold with nothing around for so many hours. One passenger from the Explorer actually videotaped the evacuation from the ship, and was interviewed on The Today Show after she arrived home. The video can be found in the upper-right hand corner of this page... you have to wait for a short commercial to run, but then it should automatically play.

The first picture below is of the crew from our boat in the black Zodiacs coming out to get one group of Explorer passengers, who were in white life boats (which did not have motors). It should give you a good sense of how there was just literally nothing around for miles, except floating chunks of ice in the distance. The second picture is a close-up of one of the life boats.

We later heard that the Explorer's passengers had been told that rescue was coming in an hour. Rescue (our ship and the Nordnorge) actually arrived in five hours--and we were by far the closest ships around. If the passengers were actually told that their ordeal would end in an hour, I think the time they spent waiting in the life boats would've been exponentially worse--it seems like you would lose hope once three hours had gone by and there was no sign of anyone coming.

While the rescue operation was in process, Jon Bowermaster, the National Geographic representative on our ship, filmed a video that was featured on ABC shortly after. Here is a picture of Jon starting to film his video. The video can be found here (you have to sit through a short commercial first).

There were 154 passengers and crew members on the Explorer, and all were saved. The Nordnorge could hold up to 1,000 people, and had 700 open spots at that point. This is because Antarctic laws dictate that only 100 passengers can go on land at any one time... so if a ship has more than 100 passengers, it can only take them out in shifts. If you get more than three shifts-worth of passengers, you're not going to make much progress sailing around the area. So larger ships that are used in other parts of the world during Antarctica's off-season have a lot of empty space when they are cruising around the White Continent. As our ship was pretty much at capacity (combined with the fact that they wanted everyone from the Explorer to stay together), the 154 people from the Explorer went on to the Nordnorge after the rescue procedure was completed. Our ship took some of the Explorer's Zodiacs onboard. And with that, we went our separate ways. Our Captain steered around the Explorer one last time to pay our respects.

This next picture was taken from the window/porthole in my cabin.

Um, yes, you could say that it was a bit freaky to see a sinking ship outside of your window, right at eye-level. But by far, the eeriest sight of that morning took place after the rescue was over. All of the abandoned life boats turned in the water and started drifting back to the Explorer. It was like they knew they belonged with her. Utterly amazing.

Needless to say, after the horrific events that day, everyone on our ship was on edge. But the Captain and crew from the Explorer, Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic could not have handled the situation more professionally. I never felt scared that we were in danger or that they were hiding something from us. Lindblad immediately called all of our emergency contacts back at home to let them know that we were OK and were NOT on the ship that sank (there was a lot of confusion in the media early on because Lindblad actually used to own the Explorer, and our ship, the Endeavour, was similarly named... on top of the fact that Lindblad now owns another boat named the Explorer...). The Captain and Expedition Leader also held a question and answer session that afternoon and discussed everything they knew about the situation with all of us. For the rest of the trip, they kept us updated on any news they were hearing. In a word, they were awesome.

It was an extremely emotional time for all of them, as nearly every team member from our ship, including our Captain, had previously served on the Explorer. I will save a summary of their comments, my additional thoughts on the incident, as well as what it meant for the environment (the good news: very little) and Antarctic tourism for a final post after I've talked about the rest of our voyage. But the one question that remains is, how could this have happened? Especially after seeing all of the high-tech equipment in the bridge, one has to wonder what went so terribly wrong.

And like I said in an earlier entry about this trip, suddenly the clipping I saw posted on the bulletin board in the bridge took on a whole new meaning.

- e


Anonymous said...

WOW!! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks! I guess I had envisioned that ships sink much faster than that. I mean, it's 5 hours later and it's still completely above water, albeit tipped. Can't wait for the next posts.

Wanders said...

What an ordeal for everyone. Thank you for writing such a compelling account. The photos are amazing as well. I'm glad everyone was okay, but to see such an impressive ship go down had to be disturbing.

Erika (aka "e") said...

AT -

I neglected to mention that the hole the iceberg made in the Explorer was only fist-sized, so perhaps that's why it took so long (2 full days in total) to completely sink. But their plumbing systems started backing up and they had lost all power early on, so they needed to get everyone out asap.

- e

Anonymous said...

Good story write it well. It would break my heart, too, to see these helpless folks...

Auntie MA

PenguinJosh said...

wow thats amazing e!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your story, I was on the Explorer, so I´m one of the lucky survivors.
I would love to have your pictures, if that´s possible.
It was impressive to hear the last goodbye sound that your ship made when it went.

take care


Erika (aka "e") said...

Marlie -

If you email me at , I could perhaps send you a link to some pictures. However, I will be on vacation until near the end of March, so it may have to be in a few weeks...

- e