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August 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Galapagos Aggressor I Runs Aground

equipment or human error? the Fleetís not saying

from the August, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On June 13, at approximately 2:30 a.m., the Galapagos Aggressor I ran aground on the rocky shoreline across from Cousins Rock, northeast of Santiago Island. Apparently, no one was badly hurt, but as you can see from the photo on the next page, the boat took quite a beating. And it wasn't long before scavengers went through the ship and dived around it, apparently carting off passengers' gear, electronics and other valuables. Because Aggressor Fleet officials refused to answer our requests for an interview, we've pieced together the story as best we could.

Homi Adajania, a film director and dive instructor based in India, was on board, and posted his tale on the ScubaBoard online forum. "After an amazing couple of days of diving around Wolf and Darwin Islands we headed back towards Santa Cruz. I was asleep in a lower-deck cabin when, at 2:30 a.m., rocks scraped the hull below us, creating an unbelievably loud sound and vibration throughout the vessel. When she finally came to a halt, she slowly started keeling over to the right, and stopped at about 40 degrees, after which she started filling with water. It was pitch black and no one could tell how far any land was. The crew was fantastic, and after much difficulty in deploying the lifeboat, all the guests got on and went in search for the closest vessel, which was the Deep Blue. I came later on the second lifeboat with the crew, as they tried to salvage as much as possible.

The company has verbally promised to compensate us for all the gear and personal belongings that were lost. . . . I can understand that diving, like every adventure sport, is a calculated risk. But sleeping in your cabin while a vessel runs aground, to no fault of yours, needs some answers and surely some kind of compensation. At the time, they claimed GPS malfunction and a rudder breakage. Who knows?"

Roshen Amin, another passenger, also posted her story on ScubaBoard on July 1. She disagrees with Adjania, saying crew handled the situation poorly. She also questioned how well-equipped the boat was to navigate, especially at night. "Why did we hit the rocks, when surely these are familiar waters to the supposedly well-experienced crew? A captain's decision is his to take, but I would have thought that, knowing his depth gauge was broken ( he had told us that the day before) his one and only GPS was broken ( the crew told us that openly when we asked why we ran aground), and that there was a rudder problem (a quiet remark from a crew member the next day) he should have chosen not to sail on through the night. Or we could have stuck closer to the Galapagos Aggressor II and sailed with her. There were lighthouses around, surely he could have plotted his course. Even after evacuating the boat, we headed further out into the dark, moving into deeper water in an overpacked dingy. But at daybreak, and low tide, we discovered our boat was lying in pretty shallow water and the shore was not that far away. So why on earth had we headed out into the dark, deep sea, looking to be rescued when dry land was right there?"

She's also not happy with how the local Aggressor Fleet representatives treated the divers when they got back to land. "Peter Witmer [general manager of the Galapagos Aggressor boats] was so unhelpful, talking about going to see the turtles and carrying on like nothing much had happened. When asked to provide the Aggressor Fleet's CEO and President's phone numbers, he told us to go get it from the internet. Nice -- while briefing us on the turtles, of course. As a group of survivors, we have collectively and constantly been asking them for answers, for compensation for lost and stolen personal items, for information. However their response is brief. They are investigating, and until then we must wait. . . but hey, they offered us a voucher for the last dive we missed."

After these comments, the Aggressor fleet began to deal with the divers aboard the damaged craft as well as those with future reservations. Leslie Thomasson, who runs the travel agency Dive the Galapagos, says the Aggressor Fleet is doing a good job in relocating the affected divers, and that the Fleet is paying compensation promptly to divers whose trips had to be cancelled. "All of my affected clients have been very pleased with the settlement and Aggressor's attention to their claims. They have reimbursed everything from flight change/cancellation fees to a cancellation penalty for the Machu Picchu train that had to be rescheduled. It took longer for clients to provide documentation than for Aggressor to respond to their claims."

Dominick Macan of Dive Advice Travel says he's also impressed. "Three clients for whom we could not provide an alternative boat in Galapagos, were offered -- and accepted -- an option to travel to Cocos Island aboard the Okeanos, and were given full refunds of their international and domestic non-refundable flights, as well as the difference between what they had paid in Galapagos and the discounted rate being offered aboard the Okeanos."

And no one diving a Galpagos Aggressor boat after September 26 is affected. Thomasson says the Galapagos Aggressor I was always due to be pulled from diving at the end of September to serve as the daily tour boat for a posh new hotel the Ecuadorian owners have constructed in Santa Cruz. Macan says it has been towed to a shipyard, and the official line is it will be repaired in time for that date. The Galapagos Aggressor II will be taking over all Galapagos trips.

Thomasson says the Aggressor Fleet is smart in giving its "we're investigating" reply to the divers on board the ill-fated voyage. That's because there's not much the Georgia-based headquarters can do quickly when its boats are actually owned by people and companies overseas. "Galapagos liveaboards all have Ecuadorian owners, no matter who handles the marketing and sales, so resolving issues can be more complicated. In this case, the U.S. office can deal with reimbursements for cancelled trips post-accident, but must come to an agreement with the owner of the boat in Ecuador for compensation."

The Galapagos Aggressor I on the RocksBut even she is befuddled about how the accident happened. "My first thought was that someone wasn't paying attention," Thomasson wrote on ScubaBoard. "Anyone up to the position of first mate or captain can sail these waters without GPS. When I'm onboard, I love having crew members point out to me the stars they used for navigation in Galapagos before GPS. So I'm baffled at this [happening] on such a common route. And getting no answers when I ask that question. Maybe no one knows yet. It's easier to blame it on equipment failure than own up to incompetence or plain human error in that situation. "

Neither dive travel agent we talked to had customers aboard the Galapagos Aggressor I for that bad June trip, but Macan says he was assured by Aggressor Fleet president Wayne Hasson that "they have been taken care of, although he did not elaborate in what way."

Neither Hasson nor CEO Wayne Brown, vice president Larry Speaker or marketing head Anne Hasson are elaborating publicly to anyone else either. None of them answered our requests for information about what caused the liveaboard to run aground, or how they're reimbursing divers on that boat. Perhaps they're still waiting for the report, even though it has been 90 days since the accident. As for the Captain's Logs for each Aggressor boat that it posts on its own Aggressor/Dancer Fleet page on ScubaBoard, the Galapagos Aggressor I's final log is from its trip from May 30 to June 6, the voyage the week before the boat ran aground.

Ironically, shortly after the incident, the Aggressor Fleet amended its web pages for the Galapagos Aggressor I and II, eliminating information about Aggressor I. Now it reads, "The Galapagos Aggressor departs from Baltra every Thursday afternoon and are [sic] the perfect platform for a Galapagos diving holiday that you will remember for a lifetime."

- - Vanessa Richardson

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