The number of cruise ships visiting the Arctic has seen a sharp increase over the last few years. More and more vessels make their way into the Arctic to experience the magic of the North. This, however, also increases the possibilities of accidents as not all vessels are suitable to navigate the Arctic Ocean. Thus, the AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) organized a meeting with Search & Rescue Service providers in Reykjavik in April to discuss possible solutions.
“An expeditionary cruise vessel with 300 persons on board has sustained an engine room fire close to the coast of remote Jan Mayen in the Arctic Ocean. Drifting towards the shore, the ship hits a rock and begins taking on water, then settles on the seabed and is in danger of capsizing. A lifeboat with 150 persons overturns while attempting a landing on the beach, resulting in five people getting lost in the sea and another five lying lifeless on the beach.”
Fortunately, this was just a theoretical scenario or tabletop exercise (TTX) that the 56 participants faced during the Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Workshop that took place in Reykjavik, Iceland April 6-7. However, in case a similar scenario would play out in the real world, the joint response exercise could add to the effectiveness and outcome of the rescue operation. The exercise was aimed at strengthening the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between the Arctic cruise industry and SAR service providers, and focused on mass rescue operations relative to potential passenger ship accidents in Arctic waters.
Ragnhildur Hjaltadóttir, permanent secretary of the Icelandic Ministry of Interior, opened the workshop and tabletop exercise organised by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), Icelandic Coast Guard and Hurtigruten. Takeaways from the event included a better common understanding of capacities, capabilities and limitations of both industry and SAR responder resources and a better perception of the obligation and common interest of timely communications regarding risk. The benefits of closer contact, ongoing dialogue and joint exercises such as this one involving SAR entities and cruise operators in the Arctic were also emphasized.
The TTX addressed several critical processes faced by participants when responding to a large maritime incident in the Arctic, and lessons learned from daily experience were shared. Key subjects included SAR cooperation plans, databases, roles and responsibilities, lessons learned from exercises as well as real incidents, and public relations and emergency management on-shore. During the theoretical exercise, which required an international response, the participants coordinated their efforts to mount an effective joint rescue. The participants contributed with vessels of opportunity; local and international air resources; and other maritime and land-based facilities in the joint mass rescue operation. Nevertheless, the incident proved challenging due to the distance of the hypothetical accident from nearest rescue assets, the scripted bad weather onsite and a continually worsening course of events.
The participants representing SAR responders and cruise operators in the Arctic included the Canadian Coast Guard; the Canadian Air Force; the Finnish Border Guard; the Norwegian Coast Guard; the US Coast Guard; the Icelandic Police; the Arctic Command of the Danish Defence and ICE-SAR; as well as a number of AECO members and Arctic cruise operators; other industry organizations and research institutions. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which organized a back-to-back meeting with the event, was also represented.
Participants expressed great satisfaction with the outcome and value of this first-ever, joint cruise industry and SAR-entities, tabletop exercise, with nearly everyone agreeing that future exercises should be developed and scheduled.