When the famous MS Explorer cruise ship hit an unknown object in Antarctic waters last November, leading to a bizarre sinking–it brought tucked-away images of an unlikely new Titanic event unfolding. The most haunting quotes from that story are the tales of crew members and passengers witnessing the water rushing into the lower cabins as the crew came to the panicked realization that they were seeing something happening that isn’t supposed to happen in today’s cruise ships. After a person sees the realistic re-creations of a sinking in 1997’s “Titanic”–the state of shock and disbelief at what was happening must have been beyond comprehension to a person with too much faith in modern technology. And while most of the passengers reportedly kept their sense of humor about the whole event and rescue mission–there still was a high danger there of people being killed. Many of the passengers had to be in lifeboats for hours before finally being rescued by a Norwegian rescue ship. Other reports say that if the much bigger cruise lines that go through there regularly in recent years ever happen to strike an unknown object (presumably an iceberg) in the future–many of the rescue ships wouldn’t be able to pick up every single person in the lifeboats.
We know that won’t deter the popular cruise lines from promoting these tours when the natural lure saves the cruise lines serious ad dollars. But the thought is still out there that the MS Explorer sinking could stop some tourists from going on those increasing Antarctic cruises in the next October-March tourist season.
According to recent media reports–you can pretty much take a chilly “no way!” to the above statement. The fascination of wanting to visit Antarctica within the confines of a palatial cruise ship is just too attractive for those who can afford the $10,000 a pop price and regularly seek out new horizons in their travels. The annual totals of people going on these Antarctic cruises are well into the middle five figures as of this writing, too, that seems to prove many people think anything can be done with a relative sense of ease and more or less solid security thanks to new technology. What they don’t know, though, might be history repeating itself.
It certainly didn’t stop scientists from starting an unlikely tourism trend that more or less began in the comfortable 1950’s. It wasn’t the U.S. that started it, however, but South America (Chile and Argentina to be exact) when they started a private cruise line traveling down into the Shetland Islands on a naval ship. The thought that you could provide a great vacation for someone–while also educating people on the environment they were seeing–was really a brilliant idea that could attract anybody who had good enough health to travel, had a hefty bank account and could withstand some colder temperatures.
Then, in all irony, the man who designed the just-sunk MS Explorer took it to the next level by summing up that travel philosophy with a near-legendary and multi-definition quote:
“You can’t protect what you don’t know…”
Swedish-American ship designer Lars-Eric Lindblad could well be considered the Thomas Andrews, Jr. (who designed the Titanic) of today. At least Lindblad wasn’t on board the MS Explorer during the sinking and would have survived anyway. Nevertheless, for years, his MS Explorer was said to be the safest ship around for traveling in icy waters. It was designed a lot differently than the Titanic in that it contained compartments in the base with air-tight doors so that water entering the ship through possible leaks would be self-contained and prevent a sinking. This ship design seemed to have basic logic in the thought that a gash or hole would only happen within the space of one of the air-tight doors–even though nobody bothered to think what would happen if a gash was large enough to cover numerous doors. Of course, nobody thought there’d be an object in the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean that would be big enough to cause such a gash.
At least the MS Explorer didn’t get a hyperbolic build-up into a giant tourist attraction as Titanic did in 1912. The MS Explorer was actually built in 1969 by Lindblad and originally self-titled after his name as the Lindblad Explorer. It didn’t have palatial interiors either–but rather just a modest ship that doubled as a vessel for scientists and also tourists–while eventually being called the “Little Red Ship.” It somehow makes you want to place a (“that could”) after the title.
Other than a few incidents with the ship over the years (one involving it running aground in Antarctica in the early 1970’s with Lindblad aboard that time)–the ship was considered the most reliable ice-faring ship in the world. It even became involved in various rescue missions as well as making history circumnavigating areas that hadn’t been explored via ship ever–including the Northwest Passage. So what happened all of a sudden? Well, we may be looking at another frightening reality that’s already plaguing the world’s airlines and large corporations: Age of the equipment and just general complacency.
While we start to worry as airlines built almost 40 years ago continue to be used daily as they slowly fall apart bolt by bolt–the same could be said for cruise ships. Most cruise lines aren’t quite as old as airlines are, but the incident with MS Explorer may be a warning that time is slipping under our feet and better maintenance needs to be done in order to ensure the safety of people who insist on having a spiritual experience traveling through the natural beauties of Antarctica…while subsequently wining and dining with a cruise ship buffet.
That concern only gets more serious when you read the reports of the maintenance on the MS Explorer before its fated voyage this last November. It was said the water-tight doors in those water compartments weren’t reinforced…among other problems with the ship’s navigation system. In order to save face as what usually happens after an airline crash–the inspection teams say that all problems were 100% fixed earlier this year before the ship started its annual voyages in October.
You can’t protect when you can’t see…
Without belittling Lindblad’s noteworthy quote from before–this subtitle or a differing thought on the original quote are worth applying to the waters where the Explorer sank. As of now, nobody knows exactly what the object was that the ship hit that caused a gash never seen before by any ship traversing there before. It was big enough to cause a gash about 10 x 4 inches in diameter just off King George Island–and even further investigations brought on the unheard-of word of “significant” in describing the damage done. Was this really just an iceberg that hit the ship, or is there a chance of other things under the ice there that we can’t see that can pose a danger to a larger cruise ship someday? Some witnesses on the ship claim that there was an iceberg collision later…after the initial collision with whatever object the ship collided with first.
It’s a shame there has to be so much dissension between those who blame the maintenance crew and those who just don’t want to be reminded that dangers exist in places we aren’t completely educated on yet. When it comes to the Antarctic–I think any scientist or explorer who’s spent time there will admit that we don’t know everything about the region yet…or even what might be potentially under the ice. And when you can’t see what’s under that ice–it makes travailing the waters there with a ship full of people who don’t think twice about having to spend time in a rescue lifeboat too reminiscent of the crew on the Titanic almost 100 years ago.
Now we’ll have to watch and see the commencement of all the theories of what that object was in the water. Some will apply everything from the fantastical (which has its own possible realms of reality) or just general scientific answers of it being an overly large and sharp iceberg hidden from view. In the meantime, those stunning pictures of the sunken MS Explorer should be studied by all those already planning on taking a cruise of the Antarctic on a massive 9,000-person cruise ship next fall and winter. While we take to heart what Lindblad said about these trips being a once-in-a-lifetime experience of learning while experiencing a unique vacation (with a Love Boat bartender look-a-like serving you daiquiris)–at least some better methods of rescue methods should be implemented in the event of a disaster.
Those larger cruise ships, however, shouldn’t really be trekking through those icy waters without daring to instigate the chance of a Year in Review someday talking about a new Titanic event happening in our time. But even the smaller ships are vulnerable–and the MS Explorer ended up becoming the first little red ship that couldn’t withstand the mysteries of nature…