The British Royal Navy sent out a self-congratulatory news release Tuesday claiming that one of its icebreakers had rescued a Norwegian cruise ship last week after it was trapped in thick ice off the coast of Antarctica. But Hurtigruten, the cruise company that owns the ship, says no such rescue occurred.
More than 200 passengers were aboard the MS Fram for an expedition through the Antarctic Sound when the Royal Navy says fast moving floes of ice up to four meters (13 feet) thick surrounded the vessel.
The Ice Patrol Ship HMS Protector, which happened to be nearby at the time, then allegedly broke through the densely packed ice and freed the cruise liner during a two-hour operation.
Commanding Officer Captain Peter Sparkes likened the HMS Protector to the Royal Navy’s Swiss Army knife -- “red, versatile and always there when you need us.”
“Protector’s ship’s company are highly trained and well-equipped to deal with a spectrum of operations in Antarctica,” he said. "That we are able to do so, so readily, is a clear demonstration of the Royal Navy’s global reach and operational preparedness.”
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Sub Lieutenant Rowland Stacey of the Royal Canadian Navy, currently on exchange with the Royal Navy and serving with HMS Protector, added that it was “an extremely impressive feat.”
“Operations in ice can be very challenging, but HMS Protector made it look easy,” he said.
This story of a dramatic rescue at the bottom of the world was reported by the BBC and several news outlets, but Hurtigruten claims what occurred was merely “a friendly gesture between two ships who are all part of the same ‘family’ when sailing in the remote areas of Antarctica.”
“On 13-14 January, Hurtigurten’s ship MS Fram had decided not to sail to one of its landing points of Brown Bluff in Antarctica as the ice conditions in the area that day were challenging,” spokesman Elliot Gillies wrote in an email. “However, our reports state that HMS Protector was sailing in the area and they offered assistance to MS Fram so that the ship could sail to Brown Bluff. The ship was therefore escorted in and out of Brown Bluff by HMS Protector.”
Dr. Kim Crosbie, operations director for the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, said “it is unfortunate that this instance of good cooperation and collaboration has been sensationalized.”
“This was not a rescue, but rather routine assistance,” Crosbie noted. “At no point was there risk to life or the environment. The whole day provided a very good opportunity for HMS Protector to prove her capabilities in these waters.”
The HMS Protector, the IAATO said, simply offered to help MS Fram get into a port that the ship was going to omit because of significant pack ice.
Crosbie did, however, admit “there was one section where the ice was particularly solid and Fram paused in a pool of open water while Protector nosed her way through. Unfortunately, the ice closed behind Protector too quickly for Fram to follow, and she was subsequently surrounded by dense pack. Protector came back around and re-broke the channel through.”
The Norwegian-owned cruise ship was built in 2007 “to bring her guests closer to nature, wildlife and unforgettable experiences.” It boasts numerous lounges, a gym and a Jacuzzi-filled deck and is designed for sailing in polar waters.
The HMS Protector, meanwhile, serves as the UK’s sovereign presence in Antarctica and patrols the British Antarctic Territory. It will complete three further five-week patrols and then head north in April before the Austral Winter.