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Thursday, December 4, 2008

MV Ushuaia runs aground in Antarctica

The 84-passenger Ushuaia, an ice-strengthened vessel that spends five months a year in the region, was near the entrance to Antarctica's famed Wilhelmina Bay when the accident occurred, a spokesman for the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators tells USA TODAY.

No one was injured in the grounding but the ship's officers plan to move passengers to another vessel before they try to "refloat" the Ushuaia.

"An initial assessment of damage indicated that while there was no imminent danger and no threat to life, it would be precautionary to transfer passengers to another vessel," the Association says in a situation report sent to USA TODAY. Still, they added, the ship is stable.

Another expedition ship, the Antarctic Dream, was seven miles away when the incident occurred and already has arrived on the scene. Several other ice-strengthed expedition ships including the National Geographic Explorer, Professor Multanovskiy and Polar Star also are nearby and have offered assistance should it be needed.

Several Chilean Naval vessels also are en route, and the Association, which has been in contact with the Ushuaia's crew, says they plan to transfer passengers to the Chilean Naval vessel Achiles on Friday.

The Association says the Ushuaia leaked a small amount of light oil when it ran aground, but the leak has since been sealed and oil barriers have been deployed to contain further spills.

Originally built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1970, the 2,923-ton Ushuaia is one of several dozen small expedition ships that operate adventure cruises to Antarctica each year during the brief Antarctic summer -- the period from late November until March when the ice around the continent melts back enough to allow visits.

The often-spartan voyages, which appeal to well-heeled adventurers from around the globe who pay $4,000 per person or more for the chance to see one of the most remote and untrammeled regions on Earth, have grown in popularity in recent years. But several recent incidents also have raised concerns about the trips, which offer the chance to see everything from giant icebergs to penguins and whales.

Just last year two expedition vessels, G.A.P. Adventures' Explorer and Hurtigruten's Fram, were damaged by icebergs. The Explorer eventually sank.

The IAATO statement on the incident says the Ushuaia was sailing nearly full with 82 passengers on board, including 12 Americans, 2 Canadians, 11 Australians and 7 residents of the United Kingdom. Passengers from nearly a dozen other countries including The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and China also are on board.
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