A Paradigm Shift for Cruising

Maritime Law (also called Admiralty Law) has been around since the early years of recorded history. Over the last couple of hundred years it has evolved into a body of law that is universally recognised anywhere in the world.

Now a second set of laws has been adopted that is only valid in the Polar Regions:  The Polar Code

Executive Summary:

The Polar Code covers all shipping in the Polar Regions, defined as above 60º North or South. In the North, Iceland and the Norwegian Cost have been exempt because of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

The Polar Code is organised into two segments: Safety and Environment.

Polar class is a subset of the Polar Code to enforce Safety features for designing and building new vessels.

Only ships that comply with the provisions of the Polar Code will be allowed to operate in the Polar Regions. All other ships will be banned.

What does this mean for cruising?

None but one of the cruise ships currently offering cruises to the Polar Regions will comply.  Only about a dozen can be modified to meet the required standards. Of the 20 expeditions ships being build only seven will be Polar Class standard.

Currently about 40,000 passengers cruise to Antarctica every year on some 40 vessels.

By 2022 (when the Grandfather Clause expires) there will only be around 15 vessels allowed into the region. None of these vessels carries more than 200 passengers, reducing the number of available berths to fewer than 20,000 per season.

From 2019 we will see a reductions in available berths – read on for the list.

Cruise Lines like Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, Hurtigruten, Ponant, Princess, Seabourn, etc will not be able to offer cruises to the Polar Regions.

Wholesalers like Abercrombie & Kent, APT, Peregrine, Q Adventures, etc will have to find new ships.

More Details about the Polar Code

The Polar Code

In 2014 and 2015 the Safety and Environmental Part of the Polar Code were formally adopted by the IMO.

This milestone is the result of a 20+ year international effort led by the IMO to promote safety and reduce the potential for environmental pollution from the increasing number of vessels operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

The Polar Code introduces a broad spectrum of new binding regulations covering elements of ship design, construction, onboard equipment and machinery, operational procedures, training standards, and pollution prevention.

Crucial Dates for the Polar Code

The Environmental Parts became effective on 1st January, 2017

The Safety Parts became effective for new ships on the same day.

For existing vessels the Grandfather Clause begins on 1st January, 2018:

Existing vessels may continue to operate in the Polar Regions until their next certification is due. All ships need to be certified every five years. If at the next certification date they do not comply with the Polar Code, they will be banned from the Polar Regions.

Over the next four years we will see the number of vessels travelling to the Polar Regions gradually reduced – read on.

At the end of 2022 only Polar Code compliant vessels will be able to travel to the Arctic or Antarctic.

Why do we need the Polar Code?

Shipping in the Polar Regions has challenges that do not occur anywhere else.

  • Low temperatures
  • Presence of ice
  • Lack of Search and Rescue (SAR) facilities

The Polar Regions are too vast and too sparsely populated to provide SAR facilities.

The Polar Code introduces functional requirements that address two hazards that pose risks to ship structures in Polar waters:

  • “Materials used shall be suitable for operation at the ships polar service temperature”
  • “The structure of the ship shall be designed to resist both global and local structural loads anticipated under the foreseen ice conditions”

More on Polar Hazards

  • Ice affects structures, stability characteristics, machinery systems, navigation, the outdoor working environment, maintenance and emergency preparedness tasks, and may cause malfunction of safety equipment and systems
  • Topside icing potentially reduces vessel stability and equipment functionality
  • Low temperature affects the working environment and human performance, maintenance and emergency preparedness tasks, material properties and equipment efficiency, survival time and performance of safety equipment and systems
  • Extended periods of darkness or daylight affect navigation and human performance
  • High latitude affects navigation systems, communication systems and the quality of ice imagery information due to limited satellite coverage
  • Remoteness and possible lack of accurate and complete hydrographic data and information, reduced availability of navigational aids and seamarks with increased potential for groundings compounded by remoteness, limited readily deployable SAR facilities, delays in emergency response and limited communications capability, with the potential to affect incident response
  • Lack of ship crew experience in Polar operations comes with the potential for human error
  • Lack of suitable emergency response equipment with the potential for limiting the effectiveness of mitigation measures
  • Potential for escalation of incidents due to rapidly changing and severe weather conditions
  • Environmental sensitivity to harmful substances and other environmental impacts and its need for longer restoration

Arctic & Antarctic Tourism 

Cruise ship tourism in Polar waters is one of the greatest concerns to Arctic coastal states and southern nations which lack the necessary infrastructure and search-and rescue capabilities to respond to incidents in remote Polar regions involving hundreds or possibly thousands of passengers.

Cruise ship traffic in the Arctic and Antarctic regions has increased significantly over the last 15 years and new operating players are entering the market.

While commercial tanker, bulk carrier, and offshore vessel operators typically aim to avoid ice and remote areas, cruise ship companies see an opportunity to cater to passengers eager to witness the pristine Polar landscapes, unique wildlife, sea ice, glaciers and icebergs.

Tens of thousands of visitors arrive by ship every summer in the Arctic and each austral summer in the Antarctic with itineraries designed to get close to the ice, which can present elevated risk levels.

Affected Areas:

The Arctic 60º north, except Iceland and the Norwegian Coast

Antarctic 60º South

Polar Class

All vessels need to carry a Polar Ship Certificate indicating that they meet the criteria of the appropriate Polar Class Certification.

Polar Class 1 to 5 are for Icebreakers in year round operations in ice.

PC 6: Summer/autumn operation in medium first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions.

PC 7: Summer/autumn operation in thin first-year ice which may include old ice inclusions.

Current ships and their future:

Only vessels with the highest Ice Classes (1A Super and 1A) can be modified to comply with Polar Class 6 (1A Super) or 7(1A)

 Ice Class 1A Super: Hanseatic, Bremen, Orion,

  • MS Hanseatic moves from Hapag-Lloyd to One Ocean and will be re-named RCGS Resolute. Next Survey 2018, expected to transition to PC6
  • MS Bremen (Hapag-Lloyd) has already achieved PC 6 certification
  • NG Orion (Lindblad) next survey 2018, no further information

Ice Class 1A:

Silver Explorer, Akademic Ioffe, Akademic Sergey Vavilov, Akademik Shokalskiy, Professor Khromov (Spirit of Enderby for Heritage Expedition)

  • Akademik Ioffe brought forward her Ice Class certification to this year and will be operating under the grandfather clause until 2022
  • For all other ships certifications are due in 2018 or 19. There is no further information. These ships can be transformed to Polar Class 7, but given the age of some of them, owners may decide to move the ships to other areas.

Current ships with Ice class 1B or below cannot be converted to Polar Class.

New Expeditions ships

All Crystal (3), Lindblad (4) Hurtigruten (2) and Ponant (4) new builds will not be suitable for Polar Waters

These ships are being built for PC 6:

  • Scenic Eclipse    Sep 2018
  • Mystic Cruises (charter to Quark and Nikko Reisen)
    • World Explorer Oct 2018
  • Hapag-Lloyd
    • HANSEATIC nature Mar 2019
    • HANSEATIC inspiration Oct 2019
  • Ocean Wide
    • Hondius 2019
  • Antarctica XXI
    • Magellan Explorer 2019
  • Sunstone Ships (charter to Aurora)
    • X-Bow Design (unnamed) Aug 2019


Expiry of current certificates – conversion to Polar Code not possible

Caveat: The expiry dates shown are calculated on 5 year intervals since launch/major re-built of the ship. Any unscheduled certification processes in the past (or in 2017) are unknown but may affect the expiry date.

Any certificates issued in 2017 will expire in 2022 and terminate the grandfather clause.

  • Ponant
    • Le Soleal May 2018
    • Le Boreal May 2020
    • L’Austral May 2021
  • Crystal
    • Serenity Jun 2018
    • Symphony Mar 2020
  • Seabourn
    • Odyssey Jun 2019
    • Sojourn Jun 2020
  • Holland America
    • Zaandam May 2020
    • Prinsendam May 2020
  • Hurtigruten
    • MS Fram Mar 2021
  • Silver Sea
    • Silver Cloud Nov 2022

She is being upgraded to Ice Class 1C at present. It is unclear whether she will be classified as a “new ship” under the Polar Code in which case she cannot travel to the Polar Regions at all.

Information collated by Gerd Wilmer – Manly, NSW