Passengers unhurt after Antarctic ship hits ice

( Reuters ) - More than 150 passengers and crew escaped unhurt after their cruise ship hit ice in the Antarctic and started sinking on Friday, the ship's owner and coast guard officials said.

A Norwegian passenger boat in the area picked up all the occupants of the Explorer from the lifeboats they used to flee the ship when it ran into problems off King George Island in Antarctica at 12:24 a.m. EST, the Explorer's owners said.

Hours later, the abandoned cruise ship sank in the icy Antarctic waters, the Chilean navy said in a statement.

The vessel is owned by Canadian travel company G.A.P. Adventures and was carrying tourists on an Antarctic tour when it struck ice.

"We were passing through ice as usual ... we do that every day. ... But this time something hit the hold and we got a little leakage downstairs," the Explorer's first officer, Peter Svensson, told Reuters Television by satellite phone from the Norwegian ship, the Nordnorge.

Svensson said the rescue went smoothly. "No one was hysterical, they were just sitting there nice and quiet, because we knew there were ships coming."

The passengers and crew were taken to Chile's Eduardo Frei base in the Antarctic and were later to be flown in Chilean air force planes to Punta Arenas, Chile, a Chilean navy commander told local television.

Television images of the boat before it sank showed the stricken vessel sitting at an angle in dark gray waters.

A company statement said the passengers included Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, Dutch, Japanese and Argentines, and that the families of those on board were being contacted.

G.A.P Adventures spokeswoman Susan Hayes told CNN the vessel "didn't hit an iceberg, it hit some ice. ... There are ice floes, but it didn't hit a huge iceberg."

The Explorer usually made two-week cruises around the Antarctic at a cost of some $8,000 (4,000 pounds) a cabin.

Smaller than most cruise ships, it was able to enter narrower bays off the continent and scientists were on board to brief passengers on the region's geology and climate change, the spokesman added.

King George Island lies about 700 miles south of Cape Horn, the tip of South America, and is the largest of the South Shetland islands.

Cruise trip travel has grown in Antarctica in recent years and Pedro Tuhay, of the Argentine coast guard, told local radio that 52 cruises were expected at the southern port of Ushuaia during this year's peak season from October to April.

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