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Marine Log

November 29, 2007

Concerns mount on pollution from Explorer

Concerns are mounting about pollution from the cruise ship Explorer, which sank in the Antarctic last Friday.

The Santiago Times reports Chilean scientists and environmentalists as saying yesterday day that they hope to determine the extent of environmental damage resulting from the recent sinking "within the next few days."

"Aside from the effects of the spilled fuel, we are also worried about parts of the ship such as the painting and the heating and air conditioning systems. Those could definitely affect the Antarctic's marine life," Samuel Leiba of Greenpeace Chile, told the newspaper.

Chilean Navy officials carried out surveillance flights over the accident site on Sunday evening and confirmed a 1.5 kilometer long oil slick. This led to their decision to send an icebreaker to both disperse the fuel slick and gather water samples.

"Considering the depth, the presence of ice, the effect of the wind and the currents and the absence of technology to contain spills on open seas and at depths of far more than 1,000 meters, the only viable thing to do is to disperse the slick mechanically," a Chilean Navy press release concluded.

When officials returned to the accident site on Monday they could still detect a strong presence of hydrocarbons.

Although details are still forthcoming, Navy representatives and environmental NGO officials are concerned about the effects that the leak could have on area fauna. The vicinity around the accident site, officials say, is rich in biodiversity and especially well known for its penguin population.

"The effects of this sinking are going to be especially severe. The accident site is an area of high and very particular biodiversity, and the marine wildlife is going to suffer," Antonia Fortt, the head of Oceana's Clean Oceans Program, told the Santiago Times.

READ THE SANTIAGO TIMES REPORT

The sinking is also sure to raise questions about the impact on the Antarctic environment of a growing number of "eco" and "adventure" tours.

Earlier this week, IMO issued a press release, in which it reported that Secretary General Efthimios E. Mitropoulos had hailed the rescue of the ship's 150 passengers and crew as "a cause for rejoicing."

"The fact that there was no loss of life," he said, "must be credited to a well-executed and orderly evacuation operation and an equally well co-ordinated rescue operation involving search and rescue (SAR) services, both at sea and ashore, from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States--a truly international effort deserving an expression of due tribute."

He went on to say that "the good work of this Organization in regulating vital safety aspects, such as survival craft and arrangements, evacuation procedures and search and rescue operations should, in cases like the Explorer's, be acknowledged and appreciated."

Mr. Mitropoulos urged the ship's flag state, Liberia, to move fast to conduct an investigation on the loss of the ship and tosubmit its report to IMO as soon as possible thereafter. The fact that cruise ships, in increasing numbers, choose remote and sensational areas for their operations, he added, made the need for expeditious action all the more important.

This week the IMO Assembly will consider, for adoption, a draft resolution on Guidelines on voyage planning for passenger ships operating in remote areas, a document that had already been drawn up in response to the growing popularity of cruise ships sailing to new destinations, some of which are at considerable distances from SAR facilities.

Be all that as it may, outside of IMO, the safety of ships visiting the Antarctic and their environmental impact was the subject of a U.S. working paper considered at the most recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting meeting, held in New Delhi in May this year.

According to the working paper, in 2006-07, more than 35,000 passengers are expected to have visited the Antarctic Treaty Area on 54 commercially-organized tour and small sailing vessels--an increase of nearly 17 percent over the fewer than 30,000 individuals who visited the Continent on 45 vessels in 2005-06.

Increased tourism raises important issues related to safety and shipping that deserve regular review and assessment, noted the working paper. This is particularly true given the prospect that large tour vessels capable of carrying more than 4,000 passengers and crew will visit Antarctica in larger numbers. These large ships, whether or not they land passengers, give rise to special environmental and safety concerns, especially related to search and rescue.

The working paper reveals that the Explorer incident is not the first case of a cruise ship finding itself in trouble in Antarctic waters.

"The incident at Deception Island on January 30, 2007, where the Nordkapp touched bottom while transiting Neptune's Bellows, serves as a reminder that vessels of even well-reputed tour companies can find themselves in distress amidst Antarctica's harsh and unpredictable environment. While not related to tourism, the February 2007 fire aboard the Nisshin Maru on the other side of the continent is a stark reminder of hazards faced by vessels operating in Antarctica. The ATCP's should take a hard look at tourism issues now, especially those related to vessel safety, and not await more serious events to spur them to action," said the working paper.

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