At 18:30 hours Chilean time Zodiac boats belonging to a Norwegian cruise vessel began landing the 154 passengers from the stricken MV Explorer at the Chilean Antarctic base President Frei in King George Island.
On Friday pre-dawn the "Nordnorge" plucked to safety the 100 passengers and 54 crew that had abandoned the M/V Explorerafter it struck underwater ice and began taking on water and listing dangerously. The accident occurred in the vicinity of the South Shetland Islands which the "little red boat" was touring as part of an Antarctic cruise that had left a few days ago from Ushuaia. According to reports from the Chilean base the "Nordnorge"is currently anchored at Fildes bay. The rescued passengers and crew will be split between the Chilean compound and the nearby Uruguayan base "Artigas". The operation is now under control of the Chilean Navy and Air Force that beginning Saturday will fly M/V Explorer'spassengers and crew members in two Hercules to the city of Punta Arenas in the extreme south of Chile. No injuries were reported during the rescue operation although passengers reportedly endured subfreezing temperatures for several hours as they waited in bobbing lifeboats for the Norwegian liner. "The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull so it began taking on water ... but quite slowly," said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which owns the stricken Liberian flagged MS Explorer. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever." Hours after the pre-dawn accident Chilean aerial photographs showed the ship listing heavily, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against the gray, choppy waters and overcast skies. Argentina's coast guard said it was in danger of sinking. Hayes said 91 passengers had been aboard, including at least 23 Britons, 17 Dutch, 13 Americans and 10 Canadians. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54. The group calmly abandoned ship when the captain's order came and pumps helped keep the ship stable for an orderly evacuation, Hayes said. Arnvid Hansen, captain of the Norwegian liner Nordnorge, said his ship ferried the passengers and crew to a Chilean base on King George Island in Antarctic. "The rescue operation ran very smoothly" said the 54-year-old captain. G.A.P Adventures is a tour company that provides excursions with an environmental focus. The Explorerwas on a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands letting passengers observe penguins, whales and other wildlife while getting briefings from experts on the region. However Hayes admitted that travelling to Antarctica is always risky, "there is ice in the area. Obviously it's a hazard of the area. But it's highly unusual (that the ship would hit the ice). This has never happened to us". An Argentine rescue and command centre received the first distress call at 12:30 a.m. EST Friday from M/V Exploreramid reports it was taking on water despite efforts to use onboard pumps, said Captain Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman. An Argentine navy statement said that the captain ordered passengers to abandon ship about 90 minutes after the first call and that passengers and crew boarded eight semi-rigid lifeboats and four life rafts, with the captain leaving the ship later. Late Friday the Chilean President Frei base had reported that disembarking from the Nordnorgehad been delayed because of waves and strong winds. According to forecasters, the air temperature was around -5 C and the sea temperature was around -1 C. An Argentine navy statement said the Explorerwas about 475 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city and a jumping-off point for cruise ships and supply vessels for Antarctica. Seas were calm and winds light at the time of the accident, officials said. Last February first, the Nordnorge evacuated 294 passengers from a sister Norwegian cruise ship, the MS Nordkapp, which ran aground off a remote Antarctic island. The Nordkapplater pulled off the rocks under its own power and authorities said those passengers were never in danger. This time however all indications are that the abandoned M/V Explorer, a pioneer of Antarctic cruises, and completely listed will go down any moment. (Chilean Air Force pictures)