Recalling the first cruise ship to Antarctica

Michael Raffety

April 28, 2009

Besides the wildlife and the scenery, one of the highlights of the austral summer of 1967-68 was seeing the first tourist ship to arrive in McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

A chartered ship from Lindblad Travel Inc. followed the Coast Guard icebreakers into McMurdo Sound and then ran aground on Hut Point on Jan. 21, 1968. The Magga Dan was originally built in Denmark for the Australian Antarctic service. Lars-Eric Lindblad chartered the ship from Denmark and used it for Antarctic tourism. The year I was there was the first time he sailed to McMurdo. The ship had a passenger capacity of 35.

Among the tourists were the first women to visit McMurdo, which killed off the joke around the base that there was a woman behind every tree.

I was there on assignment with the Navy to work on the helicopterÕs electronics and keep it oiled and ready. I also worked with two others and a chief petty officer in the electronic shop. The officers had warned us not to fraternize with the tourists. They were upset about tourists coming to McMurdo. There are no accommodations and they did not want to make any accommodations.

At that time it took two icebreakers, the Westwind and the Eastwind, to break a channel through the Ross Sea. The Westwind pulled the Magga Dan off the shoal on Jan. 23.

The icebreakers come in January at the height of the austral summer. Those have since been replaced with newer ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea. A third U.S. icebreaker is the Nathanial B. Palmer, named after an American sealer who first set foot in Antarctica. There have been times in the last five years that it has taken three icebreakers to get through because the sea ice has been so far out. The National Science Foundation has even contracted with a Russian icebreaker to be the third icebreaker.

The Navy’s effort to give the cold shoulder to the first tourists didn’t discourage them. Many Antarctic cruise ships advertise a visit to McMurdo Station, the closest a tourist can get to the South Pole 776 miles away from McMurdo Station.

McMurdo currently has a summer population of 1,000-1,200, including scientists and military support personnel. In 1998 the Navy, which had been there since 1955, got out of the Antarctic support business and turned it all over to the Air Force and Air National Guard. The Navy’s history with the Antarctic actually began with Richard E. Byrd, a naval officer who learned to fly in World War I. He, along with another pilot, a co-pilot and a photographer, flew a Ford Tri-Motor over the South Pole and back to the Little America Station on the Ross Ice Shelf in 18 hours and 41 minutes. In preparation for the International Geophysical Year in 1957, Adm. Byrd commanded the first Operation Deep Freeze in 1955-56, which established bases at McMurdo on Ross Island, the South Pole and at the Bay of Whales.

My summer in Antarctica was also called Operation Deep Freeze.

From 35 passengers on the cruise to McMurdo in 1968 there were nearly 21,000 ship passengers in the 2004-05 season. This doesn’t count the number of tourists who have flown half-day overflights of the continent from Australia and New Zealand. They must use jets to call it a “half-day overflight.” I was flown to the Ice on a Super Constellation, a prop driven plane with three tails, that TWA used before the advent of jet passenger service.

It is still a risky proposition. A tourist plane crashed in 1979 and killed 257.

In the next year, 1969, Lindblad commissioned a ship called the M.S. Lindblad Explorer. It ran aground in Antarctica in 1972 with Lindblad himself on board. He and his passengers had to be rescued by the Chilean Navy.

It was specially built for the Antarctic with a reinforced hull to midships so it could withstand contact with an iceberg. But on Nov. 22, 2007, the M.S. Explorer, then owned by a Canadian adventure company, hit an iceberg, which created a hole the size of a fist. The ship was in an area about 170 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Water was controlled by pumping, but then the engines quit and consequently shut off power to the pumps. The passengers had to abandon ship. They were later picked up by a Norwegian ship in time to watch Lindblad’s Explorer sink into the Antarctic Sea on Nov. 23.

Reading about the sinking brought Antarctic tourism and Lars-Eric Lindblad full circle for me.

Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. He turned 21 in Antarctica. In the Navy he earned the Antarctic Service Medal. Richard E. Byrd earned the Medal of Honor for claiming to fly over the North Pole in 1926. He died in his sleep at home in Boston. Lars-Eric Lindblad operated his travel business for 30 years in Connecticut. He sold the Explorer in 1985. He was made a Knight of the Polar Star by the king of Sweden. At the age of 67 he died of a heart attack in 1994 while on vacation in Sweden.

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