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A Danish rescue boat could take more than three days to rescue a cruise ship that has run aground off the coast of Greenland, underscoring the environmental risks from the growing popularity of Arctic tourism.
Ocean Explorer, a cruise ship with 206 people on board, became stuck in Alpefjord off Greenland’s remote east coast on Monday and a high tide on Tuesday failed to free the vessel.
Joint Arctic Command, the Danish military unit responsible for protecting Greenland, said that if the weather remained fine the nearest rescue boat was 2,200km away when the incident occurred and could reach the cruise ship by Friday at the earliest.
Greenland is an autonomous part of Denmark and depends on Copenhagen for defence and foreign policy.
Danish authorities said nobody was injured on board the Ocean Explorer, and that weather conditions were currently “favourable”. They have asked another cruise ship to remain in the area to offer assistance if needed, while the Icelandic coastguard may also help out.
Arctic experts have long been worried about the possibility of an accident involving a cruise, both in terms of the vast distances involved in any rescue and the burden it could place on limited local health and transport infrastructure.
Cruises to Greenland, Iceland, the Svalbard archipelago off the north coast of Norway and other parts of the Arctic — as well as the Antarctic — are becoming increasingly popular.
In 2019, a larger cruise ship, the Viking Sky, ran into trouble off the west coast of Norway, well below the Arctic Circle, with six rescue helicopters making 30 trips to the vessel.
Peter Holst-Andersen, head of the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, said afterwards that the Viking Sky incident was a severe warning for the Arctic region.
“It happened in a densely populated area with a lot of rescue capabilities relatively close to the ship. Had a similar disaster happened in most other places in the Arctic the result would most likely have been catastrophic,” he said in 2019.
He added: “No one would have had sufficient resources to react so effectively and promptly in the high north.”
The Arctic is the most rapidly warming region of the world and tourists are flocking there to see the fragile, icy landscape and its wildlife.
Ocean Explorer is operated by Australian company Aurora Expeditions, which is currently advertising a “Jewels of the Arctic” 14-day cruise that costs from A$22,000-A$42,000 per person ($14,000-$27,000).
“All passengers, the expedition team and crew on board are safe and well. Importantly, there is no immediate danger to themselves, the vessel, or the surrounding environment,” Aurora said in a statement.