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The race is on to save more than 150 passengers who are in liferafts in the Antarctic Ocean after their cruise liner hit an iceberg earlier today.
The 100 passengers and all but two of the crew were evacuated on to liferafts in sub-zero temperatures and were awaiting the arrival of another cruise ship to rescue them.
Coastguards in Britain were today helping to coordinate a rescue operation on the sinking cruise liner.
Rescue operations are being run from the US but Falmouth Coastguard in Cornwall is also involved because cruise liners can lodge search and rescue plans with them.
The sinking ship: MV Explorer ship was carrying 154 passengers (pictured on an earlier trip)
The liner, called the MV Explorer, is thought to have got into difficulties near the South Shetland Islands, south of Argentina, early this morning.
It is designed to withstand Antarctic conditions and is thought to have starting sinking after hitting something "significant".
The liner was listing at 25 degrees, according to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which was informed of the accident at just before 6am today.
The nationalities of the holidaymakers on the liner, who would have paid thousands for their trip around the Antarctic Peninsula, are not yet known.
One of the rescue boats on its way to save the 154 passengers stranded on board the Explorer
Andy Cattrell, watch manager from Falmouth Coastguard, said they had good communication links in the area and were passing information to America for them to pass on to Argentina.
He told BBC News that everyone on board bar two crew members had been evacuated into lifeboats and were waiting to be rescued.
He said: "It has hit something significant certainly because this vessel is designed to operate in these areas. It is an old vessel - built in 1969, I believe - but it is a very well-constructed vessel designed to be down there."
He continued: "We know from the American coastguards and the Argentine coastguards that are running it that there are 154 persons on board - 100 passengers, 54 crew - all abandoned into lifeboats apart from the master and chief officer and we are now awaiting news of the vessel the Antarctic Dream, which should arrive in just over an hour or so.
"They should be able to pick up the people from the lifeboats who are, as far as we know, safe in the lifeboats."
According to reports, four US vessels were only 90 minutes away and the operation was being coordinated from the US Naval Base at Norfolk, Virginia.
The Americans have not so far called in help from other countries, Mr Cattrell said. He added: "There seems to be quite an orderly abandonment of the ship.
"The nearest military stuff that will be down that way will be in the Falkland Islands but that is still too far away to help."
The MCA said it was told at 5.24am today of the incident involving the Liberian-flagged 2,400-tonne vessel Explorer.
MCA spokesman Mark Clark said: "There was a lot of ice in the area, but the vessel was built to withstand ice." Forecasters said it is now late spring in the area and the temperature would be around minus 5C today in the air, but 1C in the sea.
Stephen Davenport, senior forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "It wouldn't take long for hypothermia to set in at that kind of temperature in the sea." The MV Explorer is one of the best-known specialist cruise ships in the world and is built to withstand these type of conditions.
It pioneered the market for Antarctic tours, which also take in South Atlantic highlights such as the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
The vessel is owned by Toronto-based company Gap Adventures.
One of the British tour companies that offers holidays on the MV Explorer is Noble Caledonia, based in Belgravia, London.
But its customer relations executive Julian Hartley said today that his company had not booked any Britons on this particular trip.
He said: "We have people booked on trips on the MV Explorer for the coming weeks and we are now busy contacting them."
Typically, holidaymakers on the MV Explorer pay £4,500 per person for a trip that involves flights to and from Buenos Aires and then connecting flights to the port of Ushuaia on the tip of Argentina.
From there, the MV Explorer sails to the Antarctic Peninsula, with trips lasting around eight days.
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