Antarctic cruise routes face scrutiny


Antarctic tours are set to face more scrutiny after the costly rescue of 52 passengers.

Antarctic authorities want more say over where private expeditions venture after revealing a rescue mission this summer could cost Australian taxpayers $2.4 million.

Permits for a group whose chartered Russian ship became trapped in sea ice last month were issued without considering its proposed course.

The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) says it looked at the environmental impact of the expedition, but not its "operational parameters".

AAD director Dr Tony Fleming says those powers are being pursued after Australian icebreaker Aurora Australis had its summer program disrupted to rescue 52 stranded passengers.

"The Antarctic Treaty has discussed that matter and when all nations ratify the measure then we will be focusing on looking at the safety of the planned expeditions," Dr Fleming said.

Passengers rescued from the MV Akademik Shokalskiy arrived in Hobart on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the emergency began.

The vessel, chartered by the University of NSW-associated Australasian Antarctic Expedition to retrace the steps of explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, became stuck in thick sea ice on Christmas Eve.

Dr Fleming said costs were being determined but could range from $1.8 million to $2.4 million.

Delays to scientific programs, including a study of ocean acidification scheduled for next year, were harder to price, he said, and the AAD was in discussions with the insurers of the ship and the UNSW.

"The government will be pursuing all avenues to recover costs and minimise the burden to the Australian taxpayer," he said.

Expedition leader Professor Chris Turney apologised for the disruption and defended the scientific merit of the tour, which cost participants a minimum $8000.

He said the voyage's observations would be valuable.

"There's an argument to be made that these individual, single-year expeditions have a real value ... to address where the key research questions are and to go to them," he said.

Dr Fleming said he could not comment on the tour's scientific merit because the AAD had not examined it.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority will conduct a debrief but any inquiry into whether the ship should have been in the remote area would be Russia's responsibility, it said.

The Akademik Shokalskiy's captain sent out a distress call near Commonwealth Bay when he became concerned about icebergs.

Initial rescue attempts failed before the passengers were airlifted by a Chinese helicopter to the Aurora Australis in an operation involving four nations.

Professor Turney said the expedition had not taken unnecessary risks.

"It was an extreme event and it caught us," he said.

It was too early to say whether the organisers would pay any of the cost of the rescue, he said.

Source: AAP

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