Arctic Cruise Industry and Rescuers Participate In Joint Search and Rescue Exercise

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.

AECO –  (
Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators is an international organisation for expedition cruise operators and associates in the Arctic, dedicated to manage environmentally-friendly, safe and considerate cruise tourism.
The more than 50 international operators and 30-35 expedition cruise vessels that are organized by AECO represent the great majority of these operations in the Arctic.

Icelandic Coast Guard – (
The Icelandic Coast Guard is a civilian law enforcement agency that is responsible for search and rescue, maritime safety and security surveillance, and law enforcement in the seas surrounding Iceland.
The Icelandic Coast Guard operates Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Iceland and is responsible for coordinating maritime and aeronautical search and rescue within the Icelandic region.

Hurtigruten –  (
Hurtigruten operates a fleet of vessels on the legendary original Norwegian coastal route dating back to 1893, with 11 vessels in year-round service daily crossing the Arctic Circle. In addition, Hurtigruten currently offers seasonal expeditionary sailings in the High Arctic around Spitsbergen, Iceland and Greenland, and, starting with the 2017 season, in Canadian Arctic waters.
Hurtigruten’s substantial polar presence also includes Antarctica, operating two vessels for expeditionary cruises during the 2016/2017 season.