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Antarctica: Cruise Ships

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 28 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further steps can be taken to ensure the safety of Antarctic cruise ships.

And now for something completely different, my Lords. The United Kingdom is closely involved in the development of internationally accepted safety criteria within the International Maritime Organisation and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. A revised set of guidelines for ships operating in polar waters was recently adopted by the IMO. Additionally, the IMO will develop a comprehensive mandatory instrument for ships operating in polar waters to enhance the current guidelines covering the design, equipment and operation of ships in those waters, including Antarctic cruise ships.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his interesting and informative reply, but does not the situation have all the ingredients of a disaster waiting for a date? These cruises are becoming increasingly numerous and adventurous and even the old, small but suitable MS “Explorer” sank in 2008. Mercifully, the weather was unusually calm and all were rescued in a few hours. Does not the Minister think that our luck will run out and, if it does, what will the cost be?

My Lords, I draw the noble Earl’s attention to the steps that have been taken since the accident with the merchant vessel “Explorer”, which happily resulted in no loss of life, although I readily accept that that could easily have been a very different outcome if the weather had been different. A lot of work has been carried out within the Antarctic treaty consultative organisations in order to strengthen exactly the points to which the noble Earl refers. For example, it is now necessary for all United Kingdom-organised or originating Antarctic expeditions to have a permit from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before they can enter those waters. That permit is issued on a number of stringent conditions relating to things such as contingency planning, sufficient arrangements for search and rescue, planning for adverse weather conditions, arrangements for loss of radio, being able to cope with a full evacuation if needed and ensuring that there is proper insurance. The measures have been strengthened considerably and work continues in that area.

My Lords, will the Minister particularly ensure that he safeguards French cruise ships? My Antarctic cruise ship was French, and the food was absolutely magnificent and the wines were absolutely delicious throughout. Worth saving.

I am sure that the noble Lord will be able to go on enjoying his French cruises, as long as the ships comply with the new conditions. I should add that an environmental improvement being made in 2011 is that these ships will not be able to use heavy fuel oil and will have to substitute a lighter fuel oil. That may have an effect on the number of very large cruise liners going there, but I hope that it does not affect the noble Lord’s holiday plans.

Do these safety measures take account of the expanding Antarctic ice cap as a result of global cooling? Do they also take into account the floating ice, which will increase now as a result of this phenomenon?

I sometimes think that questions in your Lordships' House should have something written beside them in ironic script. I suspect that the noble Lord’s question may be one of those. What is happening with climate change in Antarctica is interesting, as different areas are being affected in different ways. Some areas are not being affected at all, and in some parts of the Antarctic peninsula ice is increasing. However, it is also the most rapidly warming part of the planet as well, so the picture is not quite as simple as the noble Lord suggests.

Does the Minister agree that charting is crucial to the safe operation of cruise ships in Antarctica? What is the position with HMS “Endurance”, our ice patrol ship, being out of action? Is the replacement ship fitted with suitable equipment for charting in the area? Is the Minister not aware that many cruise ships make their own charts within the anchorages which they use? These are known as mud charts—and I repeat “mud charts” because the last time I mentioned this when we debated it a year and a half ago, it appeared in Hansard as “mug shots”.

My Lords, I bow to the noble Lord for his knowledge of seafaring. I can tell him that HMS “Endurance” is still at Portsmouth, and has been there since 10 April 2009. A technical investigation and service inquiry continues into the flooding incident that affected her. No decision has yet been taken about the long-term future of HMS “Endurance”. In the mean time, HMS “Scott” is performing a number of very important elements of the ship’s duties, to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has agreed. However, HMS “Scott” is not an icebreaker and does not have the ability to land aircraft on her. She is able to operate only in areas clear of a significant ice risk, and probably during the summer down there. The matter is under review and no decision has yet been taken.

My Lords, the Minister gave a number of conditions that are going to have to be met by cruise ships in future in Antarctic and polar waters. Will those ships have to be ice-strengthened as well?

Yes, my Lords, they are not required to be ice-breakers but they need to be ice-strengthened and able to cope with ice.

Are the Government supporting the regulations being developed by the International Maritime Organisation regarding noise emissions from cruise ships—indeed, all ships—given that it is usually older ships that cause a problem with noise, and that there is growing evidence that the noise is affecting the well-being of marine mammals?

The noble Baroness raises an interesting question, to which I am afraid I do not have an answer. If this is an IMO requirement, I am confident that we will insist that those conditions are applied to cruise ships in the Antarctic area as everywhere else. We do not have any evidence that tourism in Antarctica is having an effect on the ecology or indeed on the climate.