Expedition cruise tourism hoped that this year would finally see the relaunch of voyages to the Arctic. After all, there had been two tough years behind them. But the war in Ukraine with the closure of the Russian Arctic and the sanctions caused the first big difficulties. In addition, problems with the expedition voyages to Svalbard ensured that the industry did not rest. The latest turmoil was caused by an expedition vessel in an accident in the Hinlopen Strait and a subsequent inspection.
The local newspaper Svalbardposten reported that the accident had occurred on Saturday, July 16, 2022, and had affected the ship “Ocean Atlantic,” which is operated by the Danish expedition cruise company Albatros Expeditions. However, according to the company, it was not until July 18 in the Hinlopen Strait in the east of the Svalbard archipelago that the crew discovered that the ship’s hull had been damaged, causing water to enter the ship. The crew was able to repair the damage and close the leak, no people were harmed in the accident, and guests had been informed of the damage by the crew, according to comments on social media. In a communiqué to Norwegian broadcaster NRK, the operator’s press department said they had subsequently sent a report to the Norwegian Sjøfartsdirektoratet (Maritime Authority NMS) and were then escorted back to Longyearbyen by a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel for further clarification and inspection.
Numerous deficiencies discovered
After the “Ocean Atlantic” arrived in Longyearbyen on July 20, experts from the Norwegian Maritime Authority examined the ship and also questioned the captain and the shipping company or operator Albatros Expeditions about the incident. However, the experts’ investigations found not only the repaired damage to the ship, but brought to light a total of 23 serious deficiencies, as the authority’s spokesman told the local newspaper Svalbardposten. In addition, the authority found another thirteen deficiencies that had already been listed during an inspection in May but had not yet been repaired. “The fact that we found so many deficiencies is very serious,” Dag Inge Aarhus told the newspaper. “Many of the other deficiencies relate to the ISM, the ship’s safety management system. This is the overall system to be able to maintain critical components and detect faults.” The list includes deficiencies involving the fire extinguishing system, the main engine and the three auxiliary engines, damaged or non-functioning equipment and expired certificates. Overall, the authority says it considers all deficiencies “serious.” According to Aarhus, the ship will hardly sail again until at least the 23 deficiencies have been repaired. “If it had been just the damage to the hull, it probably could have been repaired quickly and the ship could have been taken back into service,” Aarhus continues in the interview. “But there are many other issues here now.” Currently, the ship is still anchored in the port of Longyearbyen, as seen on the Marine Traffic website. Recent webcam footage from Borealis360 confirms this.
Not detained for the first time
The “Ocean Atlantic” is a former Russian ferry built in 1985, which served in the Russian Far East and the Baltic Sea from 1986 to 2012. After that, she was used as a passenger ship by her new owner and also sailed in polar regions thanks to her ice class 1B. Last year, she was sold to a Madeira-registered company belonging to the Sun Stone Group, owned by Chinese billionaire Ping Deng. The ship had undergone multiple refits and was last refurbished in 2016. Albatros Expeditions, which officially chartered and operates the ship, stated in an email to Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the vessel should have actually undergone renovations after two years of non-operation. After an inspection in May, the email continues, the ship was declared “safe and operational.” That inspection, however, was a follow-up inspection by the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which had inspected the ship May 22 and found a total of 52 deficiencies, eight of which were considered serious enough to detain the vessel, the agency wrote in a report. One of the deficiencies also included the fire extinguishing system. Other deficiencies had been found in the oil filtration system, rescue drill procedures and even medical equipment, among others. Only after the deficiencies were corrected could the ship begin its voyage toward the Arctic on May 31. Albatros Expeditions stated in an email to PolarJournal that the ship would not have been allowed to sail if it had not been declared fit and safe.
Further, Albatros Expeditions had also stated in early July that it would not operate the ship in Antarctica in the upcoming season. “After the current season in the Arctic, we have decided, after careful consideration of current world events, that she (the Ocean Atlantic) will not operate in the Antarctic in the coming 2022/23 season,” a press release stated at the time. Albatros Expeditions cites booking figures and, above all, rising fuel prices and consumption of the “Ocean Atlantic” as explicit reasons here. “The “Atlantic” is unfortunately not as fuel-efficient as the newer ships,” Albatros explains in their email to us.
Problems in the branch
Svalbard has already experienced several problems in the expedition cruise tourism sector this season. In addition to the “Ocean Atlantic”, two other, smaller ships had run aground, one leaking fuel. In addition, another large operator was caught illegally bringing a large quantity of weapons and ammunition to Svalbard. Albatros Expeditions is a member of the Society of Arctic Expedition Travel Operators AECO, which has clear and strict guidelines on incidents such as the accident, and also has very high standards of safety on board vessels operating around Svalbard that AECO members must adhere to. The company writes in its email to NRK that its top priority is the safety of its passengers and crew. When asked by PolarJournal why the “Ocean Atlantic” was then deployed anyway, even though it was known that the ship would have to undergo a renovation, Albatros Expeditions points out that they are only the long-term charter company of the ship, not the owner, and that they only complied with the contract.
Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
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