A cruise liner hit an iceberg off Antarctica yesterday and other ships rushed to rescue more than 150 people who took to the freezing seas in lifeboats, officials said.
The 100 passengers and most of the 54 crew from the MS Explorer were picked up safely after the accident near the South Shetland islands, officials from international coastguard and navy services said.
The captain and another officer were still on board the Liberian- registered Explorer, but it was not immediately known if it was sinking, the officials said. But problems with the ship's safety record were immediately highlighted.
A British coastguard spokesman, Fred Caygill, said another cruise liner, the Endeavour had taken on some of the passengers.
"All persons are accounted for," he told Britain's Sky News TV.
Susan Hayes, vice president of marketing for Gap Adventures, which ran the tour, said the 2,400 tonne Explorer began taking in water after it struck ice. Although its pumps were managing the water, a decision was made to evacuate the passengers into life boats, she said.
A Chilean navy captain, Rodrigo Vattuone, told CNN TV a distress signal was raised at 12:54am. The ship was near King George Island, where Chile has its Teniente Marsh base.
The Chilean icebreaker Oscar Viel was on its way to the ship to help the rescue operation, he said.
The owners of a Norwegian vessel, the MS Nordnorge, said it had also taken on a large number of evacuees.
The specialist Lloyds List maritime publication said the Explorer had five "deficiencies" at its last inspection including problems with a watertight door.
The ship also had lifeboat maintenance problems and was missing search and rescue plans, a report on Lloyds' Web site said.
The watertight doors were described as "not as required" and fire safety measures were criticized, it said, citing an inspection done by Britain's Maritime and Coastguard Agency in May.
Chilean port inspectors also found six deficiencies during an inspection in March, it said.