The polar regions are seeing an increased push in demand for voyages and landings. With more ships and capacity appearing in these regions over the last decade, there is no shortage of issues at hands for the lines to deal with.
“All of a sudden we have a situation where there is a lot of interest in the Polar areas with the climate change hype,” said Sven Lindblad, president and founder of Lindblad Expeditions. “Companies are waking up and saying ‘hey we’re going to take some people to Antarctica today,’ without any prior knowledge. It would be like me waking up tomorrow and wanting to run tours in Vegas.”
Lindblad added: “It’s a very dangerous place and a lot of operators aren’t realizing that. The odds of an accident happening are only going up as more ships go down there. We’d prefer that the large cruise ships don’t go there at all; it would be a huge issue if a 2,500-passenger ship had a problem. There isn’t anything anywhere near there to rescue that number of people.”
“The IMO has guidelines, but they aren’t regulations. And being that Antarctica isn’t a country, it makes things more complicated,” Lindblad said.
“There are two big issues operating in Antarctica. First, there are the physical issues with the ships, their construction and safety, and so on. But the bigger issue is the human aspect. The crew has to have experience and knowledge of the waters. They have to make judgment calls and be able to understand the different kinds of ice.”
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) plays an important role in defining guidelines and regulations for Antarctic vessel operation. “We try to encourage our members to stay ahead of the requirements,” said Steve Wellmeier, executive director. “We suggest they adopt things like covered lifeboats and satellite tracking quickly instead of waiting.”
At the U.S. Coast Guard, Investigation Division, Lieutenant Commander Gary Koehler keeps a close eye on ships operating in Arctic waters.
“We’re fairly comfortable with the capabilities of the ships operating in the Artic, for example, the two Hapag-Lloyd ships. We meet with them before they go up there to go over their itineraries.
“They are within the IMO guidelines; they have to have standards of care, contingency planning, well established communications, and a plan in place with other vessels in case assistance is needed,” Kohler added.
The Danish Maritime Authority is also keeping a careful watch on Greenland cruising, with new guidelines suggesting local navigators on ships.
A fuel ban in Antarctica may be restricting some of the ships in the not too distant future. The Maritime Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO recently approved a proposed amendment on the use and carriage of heavy grade fuel oils (HFO), including IFO-180, in Antarctica, with planned adoption at is March 2010 meeting. All signs point to MEPC adopting the new regulations, and as one insider put it, “it’s a done deal.” At press time, the new regulations were expected to come into effect in July of 2011.
“What really sped all this up was the Explorer sinking in 2007,” commented IAATO’s Wellmeier. “Suddenly people realize that since the Explorer sank, a large ship could sink too, and then heavy fuel would become a problem.”
Simon Douwes, director of deployment and itinerary planning at Holland America Line commented: “We will adapt, we are planning to carry only MGO in Antarctic waters.”