ANTARCTICA – Ice and Fire

It was on the list from day one but I’m not sure that I ever truly believed I would make it. After pogoing through Patagonia between Chile and Argentina, I finally reached the southern tip of Argentina and spent a few days scouring the agencies of Ushuaia for a boat to get to the last continent I had left to explore.

One particular boat caught my eye. A new addition to the Oceanwide fleet, the Hondius is both a commercial and research vessel with a strong ethos for environmental responsibility. Ships are assigned a ‘Polar Class’ based on their ability to withstand ice conditions and the Hondius was the first ever vessel to meet the Lloyd’s register for Polar Class 6. This allows it to operate in Summer/Autumn months (enabling it to switch between the Arctic and Antarctic). Its maiden voyage was in 2019 in the Arctic region so this season was its first in the Antarctic.

I booked, geared up and journeyed to the port with an excited apprehension for the voyage ahead!

As soon as the passengers were on board, a muster drill was conducted.

Muster Drill on board the Hondius

Muster drills are a requirement under the international convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which was amended following the Costa Concordia incident from 2011. The previous requirement called for a muster drill within 24 hours of embarking but the Costa Concordia accident occurred within this time frame, meaning most of the passengers had no idea what to do in an emergency. The resulting evacuation took 6 hours and resulted in 32 deaths. The alterations adopted in 2013 ensure that passengers take part in safety drills, including mustering at the lifeboat stations, before or immediately on departure.

After travelling across 60 countries, learning of cultures, politics, religion and history I had come to identify patterns in timelines. Over time, agriculture, technology, science, democracy and inclusivity, have been adapting as time moves forward and key events mark turning points in a country’s evolution. It seems clear that money and education have played key roles in the speed of developmental stages. As an example, if you were to visit the farmlands in Myanmar you’d see hard working manual labourers tending to crops and huge powerful oxen dragging heavy ploughs behind them as they tear through the earth, whereas on the farmlands of the US the workers and beasts have been replaced with advanced machinery to manage much larger areas.

As part of every interview I have conducted, I enquired about significant fires which have affected the nation. Almost all had suffered from catastrophic night club fires. It seems clear that this ‘Timeline theory’ could equally apply to fire disasters and the consequent regulation changes as well. In the absence of adequate safety measures to prevent fires or protect people, it didn’t matter where you were from, the outcome would inevitably be fatal.

For obvious reasons the issues are far more complex when it comes to means of escape from ships or boats, which means the Timeline has been vastly accelerated for maritime safety. Catastrophe was imminent when procedures were not in place to prevent fires starting and spreading since evacuation is never as simple as exiting a building.

Whether through fire or not – when a ship is compromised – how do people escape safely? The most notorious maritime disaster in history prompted significant changes to the way egress was managed. The Titanic striking an iceberg in 1912 resulted in SOLAS being established in 1914. At the time, the ship carried the legal number of lifeboats required but they were only capable of carrying half of those on board. The SOLAS regulations ensured that all ships carried enough lifeboats for everyone.

The first leg of the journey took us across Drakes Passage. I had been told that you either experience the ‘Drake shake’ – large rolling waves that test even the strongest of stomachs, or the ‘Drake lake’ – calm, still waters. The sick bags which lined the corridors were a good indication of what we were to expect.

A fantastic element to the expedition were the regular lectures given on a variety subjects, ranging from history of exploration, scientific research, regional marine life to cartography. When I wasn’t throwing up, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Arriving at the peninsula of Antarctica the waters calmed, my stomach settled and my excitement grew as the impending shore excursion was imminent.

The MS Explorer sank in 2007 after hitting an iceberg and although all passengers and crew survived, the safety of Antarctic travel was called into question, particularly from an environmental viewpoint. This is a sensitive ecosystem and subsequent measures were put in place to protect it from the ever-growing tourism industry. Ships were banned from carrying heavy fuel oil to both avoid spills and to prevent potentially harmful larger ships from entering the region. No more than 100 people are allowed to disembark at any one time.

A small group of us were taken via Zodiacs to a beautiful spot called Portal Point on the northeast side of the Reclus Peninsula, overlooking Charlotte Bay. I’m not sure I expected the feeling it gave me as I stepped from the zodiac and felt the snow crunch beneath my boots. A twisted confused rush of joy and disbelief, as I silently repeated ‘how did I end up here?’ I walked slowly past the Weddell and Crab-eater seals sprawled across the ice and rocks, lazily scratching their large flabby stomachs and expelling clouds of hot breath as they yawned.


I made my way up a small hill to survey the view. The bay was full of humpback whales enticed by the abundance of krill and everywhere I looked they were breaking through from the dark abyss, tossing their huge bodies out and slapping their fins in a display of graceful power.

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The icebergs shimmered with a turquoise glow set against a background of snow capped mountains and glaciers which were highlighted by the sun peeking through the breaks in the clouds.

No words or photos could ever do this scene justice and I realised this would be a moment that would stay with me forever.

First steps on the continent of Antarctica

Quite a few people laughed at the idea of me researching fire safety in the Antarctic – ‘isn’t it a little cold for fires?’ Well fire safety remains a significant issue in the region’s many research stations which often have large storage facilities that pose a significant fire risk. As part of the expedition I visited Base Brown, an Argentinian research base still showing the scars from a fire in 1984.

Base Brown

Base Brown was established in 1951 and currently has an occupancy of 8 people. I met with Florencia Blanchet (the base commander) and Astrid Zaffiro (the base doctor) who are members of the current team.

Florencia Blanchet, Astrid Zaffiro and Ben Giunchi (Expedition Guide)

I was told that the 1984 fire was rumoured to have been started by a doctor on site who could not face the thought of spending another winter on the base. I could only imagine how difficult and depressing it must be to over winter in Antarctica considering the hours of darkness so it was definitely believable! Following its rebuilding, additional fire safety measures were imposed to prevent future fires through regular risk assessments and more stringent safety requirements for electrical equipment. It was also decided that the facility would only be occupied during the summer months.

It was a hub of life, the land was covered in penguins with their newly hatched fluffy chicks, squabbling over stolen pebbles and warning off the Skuas menacingly floating overhead. Minky Whales were gently breaking the surface of the calm waters to exhale whilst penguins skipped across the surface like tiny torpedoes. I was well and truly bitten by the Polar bug by this point.

Penguins and their chicks on Base Brown
Minky Whale in front of a huge glacier
Torpedo Penguin

A small group of us braved the polar conditions by camping overnight on Hogvaard Island. The ship left us on land and we proceeded to dig out our beds for the night. Most people decided to settle down early but I was keen to relish the extra time on land and explore the island.

Digging an ice bed on Hogvaard Island
Dusk on Hogvaard Island

Being a city girl, I can’t recall ever experiencing true silence before. Even during quiet times there would often be a distant drone of traffic or a steady hum from various electrical appliances. Which is why utter silence was so overwhelming. All other senses became more heightened until the silence was broken by deep guttural breaths echoing across the mirrored water. I couldn’t pinpoint their location through the dimming light so I lay back against the rocks and just listened. It was magical.

After a surprisingly warm night’s sleep I returned to the boat to meet with Mikko Heikkilä, the ship’s staff officer who was good enough to give me a behind the scenes tour of the Hondius. He showed me the impressive systems on board and gave me a rundown of the required procedures, drills and history of maritime regulation.

Staff officer Mikko Heikkilä

Current requirements are for all crew members to attend frequent emergency drills and for lifeboat equipment, fire devices, systems and alarms to be checked and tested regularly.

As a result of the ‘Timeline of Events’ in more recent history across the 80’s and 90’s further requirements were introduced in 1997. Mikko explained that fires such as the one on the SS Scandinavian Star in 1990 had contributed to these measures being introduced. I researched this fire later to see how each failure had prompted each new requirement based on the events that took place in the early hours of the 7th April which resulted in 159 deaths.

  • The stairwells and ceilings acted as chimneys for the fire and toxic fumes to spread.

Subsequent requirement: All stairways to be enclosed in self-contained fire zones

  • The fire doors relied on manual release and therefore did not close as required. In addition, ventilation fans in a vehicle storage area drew air through a faulty fire door which further contributed to fire spread.

Subsequent requirement: All fire doors to be controllable from the ship’s navigation bridge

  • Those who tried to escape may have encountered thick smoke obscuring the exit routes and signage together with confusing corridor layouts.

Subsequent requirement: Low-level lighting to be provided to show routes of escape (such as in corridors and stairways)

  • Many people probably did not hear the alarms due to the distance between their cabins and the alarms, and due to ordinary mechanical noise from the ship systems.

Subsequent requirement: Smoke detectors and smoke alarms to be fitted throughout all passenger cabins and all public spaces with emergency alarms to be audible in all cabins

There were also numerous failures resulting from the lack of training, planning and communication (some members did not speak the same language).  When the captain gave the alarm to abandon ship, both he and the crew left before all the passengers were evacuated. The ship continued burning until it was towed to harbour where it took the fire department ten hours to suppress.

The systems on the Hondius are extensive, with a water mist system, detection and alarm throughout and a positive pressure system so that rooms and escape routes remain clear of smoke.  The crew engage in extensive, regular training and it was wonderful to see how regulations have adapted to protect both passengers and crew. Being embedded in international maritime law it applied everywhere. If only the Timeline of Events did not need to run its course for this to happen on land.

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