Swan Hellenic, the reborn British company, on Jan. 26 evacuated an expedition team in Antarctica that ran into complications departing the continent due to severe weather and newly implemented COVID restrictions.
Swan Hellenic's ice-class expedition ship SH Minerva helped evacuate the Antarctic Quest 21 expedition team from Portal Point after it sailed into Charlotte Bay on Jan. 16 during its second cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Antarctic Quest 21 expedition team had spent five weeks travelling over and along the spine of the Antarctic Peninsula when it became clear they would have to attempt an early return, Swan Hellenic said in a press release.
"COVID containment restrictions introduced in Argentina had led many polar operators to cancel their programs, so the expedition team could not be picked up as planned," Swan Hellenic said. "Indeed, there was a very strong risk they might have been stuck on the peninsula, which was when SH Minerva arranged to come to their assistance."
The expedition, a commemoration of the life of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, collected samples that provide vital information on the levels of microplastics and metals in the snow, on the ozone hole, the amount of UV reaching the Peninsula, and meteorological observations to help improve the modelling of ice-mass accumulation and loss on the Peninsula.
"The crew and guests on SH Minerva were delighted we could be of assistance in these challenging conditions and help the explorers safely complete their mission. The team was very generous in sharing their experiences, bringing a richly stimulating additional perspective to the voyage," said Swan Hellenic CEO Andrea Zito. "Swan Hellenic is committed to assisting and building links with the research community, so this was a very fitting early episode for the first ship in our fleet."
Expedition Leader Paul Hart shared details of the rescue at the Antarctic Quest 21 website.
"Our pick-up from the ice was planned for 27 January 2022 and all our planning assumptions were based on that date. The fact that we had managed to reach Antarctica at all, in the face of the outbreak of the new Omicron COVID variant, was testimony to the safety protocols that Polar Latitudes had put in place for our travel and to the fortitude of the team. However, the wider situation relating to COVID and the polar travel providers operating from Ushuaia in Argentina, was far more problematic.
"On 31 December 2021, the Argentinian authorities put in place new restrictions meaning that it was impossible for many of the Polar operators to undertake their programs, and this included Polar Latitudes. We were advised on 3 January 2022 that there was a potential for our planned pick-up not to be possible if these restrictions were not eased. At this point we were trying to negotiate one of the crux areas of our route. Each day forward would add two days to the return leg. The concern was that a return pick-up might come earlier than planned and pushing forward would jeopardize our extraction. As such, we had to make the decision to only scout the route, but not move camp, until we could be more confident of not being left stranded on the ice. Alongside this we had all the other problems of the extremely bad weather.
"As the time continued to slowly ebb away, we learned that other operators, such as Hurtigruten, were cancelling their season of activity in the Antarctic. This was a clear indication of a potential domino effect and all operators cancelling their seasons due to the level of COVID being presented in Ushuaia. This began to consolidate into a concrete picture that the number of operators who might be able to assist us, if Polar Latitudes had to cancel their pick-up, was rapidly diminishing.
"By 8 January 2022, we were left with a stark decision: Push forward and risk no pick-up or continue to scout the route until we knew what Polar Latitudes would do. It was at this point that news arrived from Polar Latitudes indicating that they would not be able to run their planned journey to recover us. We immediately began to make the fastest possible return to Portal Point whilst Polar Latitudes made a request to all other available operators to assist us. This journey was hampered by two further days of bad weather, where we could not move, but by 14th January we had recovered the full team and all equipment back to Portal Pont where we awaited news.
"We could not have asked for more from our friends at Polar Latitudes and their efforts to try to resolve the situation. We spent a tense few days during which there was limited response from other operators in the region. We watched ships pass without the possibility for interaction. Then Swan Hellenic and Viking responded with offers of assistance. On 16th January 2022 Swan Hellenic and their ship Minerva sailed into Charlotte Bay to retrieve us from Portal Point.
"Had we not started our return journey when we did, putting us at Portal Point in time for the Minerva's passing, we now know that there was a very strong likelihood we would have been stuck on the Peninsula. We have to say the warmth and hospitality of everyone on SH Minerva was simply outstanding, and we were treated with such kindness, it is hard to find words to express our gratitude for all that was done for us."
Swan Hellenic was relaunched in July 2020 to proudly continue the cultural expedition cruising the company pioneered in the 1950s. SH Minerva and SH Vega, two new polar PC 5 ice-class expedition cruise ships, launched in December 2021 and arriving in May 2022, respectively. Each accommodates 152 guests in 76 suites and staterooms, the majority with large balconies. A larger PC 6 ice-class vessel accommodating 192 guests is scheduled to arrive in early 2023. Swan Hellenic has an office in North America.
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