How Alaskan bears led to a maritime Mass Rescue Operation

A crewmember from the Holland America cruise ship Volendam, helps a passenger from the sight seeing vessel Baranof Wind as 72 people are evacuated from the vessel after it reportedly struck a rock and started taking on water in Glacier Bay, Alaska Aug. 19, 2012. Coast Guard, National Park Service, and Good Samaritans responded to the Baranof Wind to help ensure that the passengers and crew were safe after the incident. Photo courtesy of the Holland America cruise ship Volendam.

Written by Lt. Ryan Erickson

It is no secret Alaska, the 49th State of our nation, is known for its majestic beauty and ruggedness, pristine waterways, copious mountain peaks and wildlife. Alaska has more eagles than anywhere else, some of the tastiest fish and bears galore. Oh, and don’t forget the tourists who flock to the state to see all of the above.

This is the story on how said “Alaskan beauty” led to what’s called a “mass rescue operation.”

During the morning of Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012, more than 70 people were enjoying one of the few sunny days in Southeast Alaska by way of touring the waters in and around Glacier Bay aboard a 79-foot catamaran. During this particular morning the bears were out on shore; and in an effort to get a better view of the bears the captain of the tour boat inched his way closer to ensure some great photo opportunities. However, while the vessel was moving forward, at some point the Captain realized we was moving over shallower waters and attempted to back away from the shoreline. It was while backing out into deeper waters when the vessel struck a rock and began taking on water.

Water began to intrude where water ought not to have been; inside of a boat.

Coast Guard Sector Juneau’s command center watchstanders received a call alerting them of a vessel taking on water in Glacier Bay… with 84 people aboard.* To most people in the maritime community  just the thought of a boat with a hole in it – let alone with water coming in – is enough to make the hair stand on end. Add in the lives of eighty-something people to the mix and nerves could come unraveled.

With mountains in nearly every direction, the tour boat relayed a call for help through the good Samaritan vessel Sea Wolf, whose crew was able to communicate directly with the Coast Guard. Hearing the call on marine channel 16 the National Parks Service in Bartlett Cove was the first to respond while the command center called Coast Guard Air Station Sitka to launch an MH-60 Jayhawk and diverted Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa to assist with the looming mass rescue operation.

To get a better understanding of the term “mass rescue,” it’s best to recall recent rescues falling into the same category. Take, for instance, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where the pilot of a commercial aircraft landed his plane on, as opposed to in, the Hudson River. Everyone aboard, all 150 passengers and crew, survived and were rescued by multiple agencies. Such an effort cannot be done by one agency alone – it’s a collaborative effort… a mass rescue operation.

Also overhearing the distress call was the nearby Holland American Line cruise ship Volendam. The 1,500-passenger cruise ship Volendam is an active member of the Automated Mutual-assistance VEssel Rescue System, frequently known as AMVER. Volendam was ready and willing to assist, and what started as a call for assistance quickly turned into a full-fledged mass rescue operation.

The Coast Guard helicopter, upon arriving, took control of the situation as the on-scene coordinator between the several vessels. While coordinating the transfer of passengers from one vessel to another and keeping the communications flowing, they also deployed their rescue swimmer to deliver a pump to the tour boat to help remove the intruding water.

With the potential of a 79-foot vessel sinking the plan was simple: get the passengers to safety. The crew of the tour vessel and the crew of Volendam worked to shuttle people off of the sinking vessel to the safety of the cruise liner. In all, from the time the Coast Guard received the call to the time passengers were being moved to safer vessels, only about an hour had pass.

With the generosity of the maritime community more than 70 people were on their way to Gustavus, Alaska, to continue their exciting journey of the day. In the subsequent hours after the ordeal started, Coast Guard Sector Juneau deployed personnel from their investigations and incident management divisions to the scene to oversee any potential pollution impact or response and to begin an investigation. The vessel didn’t sink, though they were indeed taking on water, and is now moored in Sitka for repairs.

This is a near textbook example of what a mass rescue operation is: multiple partners assembling to assist large numbers of mariners in distress. Without the cooperation of Volendam, the National Parks Service, the Coast Guard and several good Samaritans, the outcome of this ordeal could have been very different.

*It was later found that 8 of the original reported were not part of the vessels manifest and were only aboard for a ride to the Glacier Bay area for a kayaking trip separate from the tour. They departed the tour boat after it struck a rock and were no longer counted as part of the total number.