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Race to rescue Antarctic adventurers -

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Race to rescue Antarctic adventurers

The World Today - Friday, 5 December , 2008 12:18:00

Reporter: Simon Santow

ELEANOR HALL: In Antarctica, a cruise ship has run aground stranding more than 120 people and
spilling diesel into the pristine environment.

There are 11 Australians among the passengers on board the ship.

They're now waiting in difficult weather conditions for a Chilean naval ship to come to their
rescue, as Simon Santow reports.

SIMON SANTOW: The Ushuaia is an American built steel hulled ice strengthened ship - meant to
withstand the toughest of ocean conditions. But it seems that the gale force winds and dangerous
seas of the Antarctic proved too much for the ship as it ran aground near the entrance to
picturesque Wilhelmina Bay earlier this morning.

The ship's captain is Jorge Aldegheri.

JORGE ALDEGHERI (translated): At this moment the ship is stabilised. There is no-one who is
inconvenienced or injured. We're following a plan that's been developed for these situations.

SIMON SANTOW: The 40 strong crew is dominated by Argentineans but tourists from Australia and the
US together make up a quarter of the 82 passengers on board.

Authorities are confident the ship won't sink but they have other cruise boats in the area on
standby to help out should the situation worsen before a Chilean naval ship arrives tomorrow
morning for the rescue operation.

One of those ships is the Polar Pioneer, an Aurora Expeditions ship with many Australians on board.
Greg Mortimer is Aurora's founder and managing director.

GREG MORTIMER: They've reported tough conditions over the last few days in fact, very high winds
which have made landing quite difficult. Wilhelmina Bay where the MV Ushuaia has gone aground is a
very protected waterway so they may well be, it seems they're in more protected conditions where
the vessel is.

SIMON SANTOW: Is it dangerous, you know, in terms of grounding?

GREG MORTIMER: Oh initial grounding has potential doesn't it? It seems very much in control.
There's a great sense of order coming from the vessel and these are very, very good operators, the
people that operate the vessel, of long standing and of great experience. So the recent reports are
saying that passengers are going to stay on board the vessel overnight which means that the ship
must be really very stable.

SIMON SANTOW: Steve Wellmeier is the chief executive of the International Association of Antarctica
Tour Operators. He doesn't know yet what happened to the Ushuaia.

STEVE WELLMEIER: Hopefully the weather will stay, not ideal conditions from what I understand but
it sounds like they'll be able to, if it doesn't get any worse they'll be able to proceed with
their plan.

SIMON SANTOW: How will they transfer the passengers?

STEVE WELLMEIER: I can't, I don't know the exact details on how they'll do that, what sort of
tender craft or landing craft they would use to transfer from one vessel to the other. Lifeboats
and landing craft, both vessels available obviously to assist in that transfer.

SIMON SANTOW: Two diesel tanks were punctured in the ship's grounding. Steve Wellmeier says any
spill is of concern to tourism operators but he's confident this one is only minor.

STEVE WELLMEIER: This vessel was carrying MGO, which is a light diesel fuel which tends to
evaporate relatively quickly. It's not a heavy oil. So that's in our favour and there is a, my
understanding is that there is a boom in place that is helping that oil spread from spreading

SIMON SANTOW: The Australian Antarctic Division is worried about the impact of tourism in the area.
Its director Tony Press says if mishaps can occur to ice strengthened ships like the Ushuaia, there
are even greater dangers posed by larger ships not built for the conditions.

TONY PRESS: What we've really been concerned about is whether there's a high potential for a large
scale accident with these large tourist ships carrying a large number of people. And our concern
there is two-fold. First is the environmental impact of a ship sinking with a large quantity of
fuel on board. And of course the major concern is how do you deal with the passengers on board if
you've got a few hundred people?

SIMON SANTOW: The countries with a stake in the Antarctic are due to discuss these and other issues
threatening what is still a largely pristine environment at a meeting next year.

ELEANOR HALL: Simon Santow reporting.