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Antarctic cruises are rising in popularity, though 4 Americans recently died on them

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are joining an international investigation. It follows a series of casualties on cruises to Antarctica. Four Americans died on cruise ships in three separate incidents in November. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, the probe throws a spotlight on the popularity and perils of cruising to one of the most inhospitable locations on the planet.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It was once seen as remote and inaccessible. But for anyone with at least several thousand dollars to spend, a trip to Antarctica is now possible. If you spend enough, you can do it in luxury. But as with all travel, there are risks.

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TOM TRUSDALE: This wave hit it and came over and literally broke through windows and just washed into these rooms.

ALLEN: Tom Trusdale was on a Viking cruise ship with his wife, Pam, in November, heading back to port in Ushuaia, Argentina, when a rogue wave slammed into the ship. He described it to ABC News.

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TRUSDALE: And not only did it wash into the rooms, but it broke walls down. And some walls went into the next room.

ALLEN: One person died and four were injured in that incident. The Trusdales also had a scare when a rigid, inflatable Zodiac boat they were in suddenly lurched, injuring one passenger and sending another one for a brief time into the frigid water. In another incident, a Zodiac boat from a Portuguese-flagged ship, World Explorer, capsized with six passengers on board. Two Americans died. Another person died in November aboard a Netherlands-flagged Antarctic cruise ship. The Coast Guard and the NTSB will examine those accidents and make recommendations on how to improve safety on Antarctic cruises. Despite those accidents, this tourism season in the Antarctic is posed to set new records for cruise lines. More than 100,000 people are expected to book Antarctic cruises this season, up nearly a third from the number who traveled there three years ago. Stewart Chiron writes and talks about the cruise industry as The Cruise Guy.

STEWART CHIRON: There's a lot of pizzazz that may go into, you know, being able to say, hey, I was down in Antarctica. Not too many people have been there. It's like going to space. So now that there are better accommodations, nicer accommodations going to this region of the world, more people are willing to do it.

ALLEN: Chiron says after a two-year interruption because of the pandemic, the demand for Antarctic travel may have led some operators to offer more cruises earlier in the season when seas are rougher. As alluring as Antarctica is as a destination, Becca Pincus says passengers need to be aware of the risks and consequences of accidents there. Pincus, who directs research and policy at the Wilson Center's Polar Institute, says the hazards include frigid water and very choppy seas.

REBECCA PINCUS: It's an ocean that surrounds a landmass, but because it's this really wide-open ocean space, the wind travels across that surface almost without obstacle. So the fetch is unlimited, and that kicks up big waves.

ALLEN: For now, there are no limits on how many cruise ships or passengers can visit Antarctica. An industry group, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, provides some oversight and coordinates activities like excursions and landings on the continent during the busy season. Pincus says the industry itself may act to limit tourism and the number of ships visiting Antarctica.

PINCUS: The cruise ships really want to give the impression that when you are down in Antarctica, you are alone in a wilderness. And so they usually try to stay out of sight of each other.

ALLEN: That can be difficult, with as many as five cruise ships sharing one landing site on certain days. Pincus worries about the environmental impact tourism may have on Antarctica if it's not regulated or constrained. But on the positive side, she says people who visit and love the Antarctic can help build support for tackling the biggest threat facing the polar regions - climate change. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.

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