BUENOS AIRES - A Canadian cruise ship struck a submerged iceberg and sank off Antarctica yesterday. All 154 passengers and crew, including at least 13 Americans, took to lifeboats and were plucked to safety by a passing cruise ship.
No injuries were reported, although passengers reportedly endured subfreezing temperatures for several hours as they waited in bobbing lifeboats for a Norwegian liner that took them to a Chilean military base in the region.
The Chilean Navy said the stricken ship, the MS Explorer, was listing heavily to starboard and taking on water last night before it went under, 20 hours after the collision.
"The ship ran into some ice. It was submerged ice and the result was a hole about the size of a fist in the side of the hull, so it began taking on water . . . but quite slowly," said Susan Hayes of G.A.P. Adventures of Toronto, which owns the Explorer. "The passengers are absolutely fine. They're all accounted for, no injuries whatsoever."
The accident occurred near King George Island, part of Antarctica's South Shetland Islands, shortly after midnight yesterday, officials said.
Hayes said 91 passengers had been aboard, including at least 23 Britons, 17 Dutch, 13 Americans, and 10 Canadians. The ship also carried nine expedition staff members and a crew of 54.
The group calmly abandoned ship when the captain's order came and pumps helped keep the ship stable for an orderly evacuation, Hayes said.
Arnvid Hansen, captain of the Norwegian liner, Nordnorge, said his ship ferried the passengers and crew to a Chilean Air Force base on King George Island in Antarctic waters near southernmost South America.
"The rescue operation ran very smoothly," the 54-year-old captain said by shipboard telephone from the Nordnorge.
Chilean aerial photographs showed the damaged ship before it sank, its white superstructure and red hull starkly visible against the gray, choppy waters and overcast skies.
G.A.P. Adventures is a tour company that provides excursions with an environmental focus. The Explorer was on a 19-day circuit of Antarctica and the Falkland Islands that allowed passengers to observe penguins, whales, and other wildlife while getting briefings from scientists who study the region.
Traveling to Antarctica is always risky, Hayes said. "There is ice in the area," she said. "Obviously, it's a hazard of the area. But it's highly unusual [that the ship would hit the ice]. This has never happened to us."
An Argentine rescue and command center received the first distress call at 12:30 a.m. yesterday from the Explorer amid reports it was taking on water despite efforts to use onboard pumps, said Captain Juan Pablo Panichini, an Argentine navy spokesman.
A navy statement said that the captain ordered passengers to abandon ship about 90 minutes after the first call and that passengers and crew boarded eight semirigid lifeboats and four life rafts, with the captain leaving the ship later.
A Chilean ornithologist identified as Paola Palavecino was quoted in an Argentine media report as saying she and others aboard went into the lifeboats before dawn and endured subfreezing temperatures for a few hours until they were picked up at about 6 a.m.
"The ship took on water quickly," she was quoted by the Argentine news agency Diarios y Noticias as telling a local radio station in a call from the Nordnorge.
A commander at Chile's air base on King George island confirmed late yesterday that the Nordnorge had arrived in a bay near the base, but said waves and strong winds had prevented the passengers from immediately disembarking.
He said Chilean Air Force planes, weather permitting, would fly the survivors today to Punta Arenas at the southernmost tip of Chile.
An Argentine Navy statement said the Explorer hit the iceberg about 475 nautical miles southeast of Ushuaia, the southernmost Argentine city and a jumping-off point for cruise ships and supply vessels for Antarctica. Seas were calm and winds were light at the time of the accident, officials said.
On Feb. 1, the Nordnorge evacuated 294 passengers, including 119 Americans, from a sister Norwegian cruise ship, the MS Nordkapp, which ran aground off a remote Antarctic island. The Nordkapp later pulled off the rocks under its own power and authorities said those passengers were never in danger.
The ship, which was built in 1969, was referred to by the company as an expedition ship rather than a cruise liner.
It usually made two-week cruises around the Antarctic, with scientists on board to brief passengers on the wildlife, geology, and climate.
The Explorer had a reinforced hull to help fend off ice. It was much smaller than typical cruise ships and was able to enter narrower bays off Antarctica.
It had been due to return to Ushuaia on Thursday, company officials said. Passengers had paid from $8,700 to $16,600 for the voyage.