After an ill-fated Antarctic expedition in which 60% of passengers and crew contracted coronavirus and spent a month stranded off the coast of South America, the successful repatriation of 132 tourists from a Australian cruise ship seemed like a rare happy ending.
But what should have been a peaceful epilogue in which the crew of the Greg Mortimer sailed safely home has become a gruesome sequel of sickness and panic – with the added possibility of a legal battle in Miami courts.
In recent days, tensions aboard the stranded ship reached a breaking point over allegations that the ship’s operators and captain pressured the chief medical officer to mislead authorities in Uruguay about the health situation onboard.
Emails seen by the Guardian appear to show that two companies associated with the Greg Mortimer – Miami-based crewing company CMI/Sunstone and the Australian cruise operator Aurora Expeditions – urged Dr Mauricio Usme to downplay the severity of the outbreak.
A doctor from a third company linked to the vessel – the Fort Lauderdale medical company Vikand – also allegedly suggested Usme should play down the health situation onboard.
The ship remains anchored 20km off the coast of Uruguay. Thirty-three members of its 85-strong crew – including Dr Usme – have tested positive for coronavirus, and one has died of Covid-19.
“More will continue getting sick,” Usme told the Guardian over a tenuous WhatsApp connection.
“We’re all exposed to the risk of potential death as long as we remain onboard, because having coronavirus is like having a timebomb ticking inside you that could go off at any moment.”
Usme and eight other crew members have retained the services of Miami maritime lawyer Louis Vucci. “At some point there could be legal action for them getting Covid unnecessarily,” Vucci told the Guardian.
The Greg Mortimer set out from the Argentinian port of Ushuaia on 15 March – four days after the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared an international pandemic.
After a week at sea, coronavirus symptoms were detected, but by then, Argentina had closed its ports to cruise ships, so the Greg Mortimer changed course to Uruguay.
As they neared Montevideo, Usme completed a maritime declaration of health – a standard form reporting the possible existence of infectious disease onboard.
Usme had already divided the ship into red, grey and yellow zones, for passengers in isolation, quarantine or observation. “We didn’t have test kits onboard, so I had to assume that anybody with symptoms was positive.”
In his health declaration for Montevideo, Usme stated: “We have patients with fever we need to rule out with specific test Covid-19/Sars2.”
But before submitting the declaration, Usme received emails from CMI/Sunstone and Aurora Expeditions, apparently urging him to change his answers.
“The risk we carry is public outcry and wharf side workers refusing to allow the ship to berth and allow passengers to disembark,” wrote Aurora director Glenn Haifer in an email dated 26 March.
“Please bear in mind that how you write the health declaration will influence the way that this is viewed. We don’t know we have Covid-19.” Haifer added: “Give limited information truthfully.”
Usme replied: “For ethics, for morality, for responsibility with ourselves and with the health of those who are not affected, the health declaration must reflect the reality that we currently have.”
A spokesman for Aurora said: “We strongly disagree with the characterisation of the situation, but understanding that legal action has commenced between various other parties, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”
The email from CMI argued that Usme should change his answer to a question about quarantine as the ship had not officially been put under quarantine.
A spokesman for CMI denied that any pressure was put on Usme, saying: “The doctor was asked to accurately and truthfully complete the health declaration form.”
The spokesman added that CMI and the vessel worked closely with the Uruguayan authorities on every aspect of the vessel’s arrival. “This was done with full and complete transparency at every step,” he said.
But at least two other crew members claimed pressure was brought to bear on the medical officer.
An audio recording heard by the Guardian suggests that, as the ship approached Montevideo, the ship’s Swedish captain, Joachim Saterskog, offered to change the doctor’s declaration, as the ship had not been placed under quarantine by authorities.
“The company wanted to disembark the passengers, which was very irresponsible because they would have represented a great risk for Uruguay,” ship storekeeper Marvin Paz Medina told the Guardian in a WhatsApp message.
Usme refused to reconsider and the unaltered declaration was sent to port authorities on 28 March – with the result that Uruguay did not allow the Greg Mortimer to disembark.
It wasn’t until 11 April that a “sanitary corridor” was established for the first group of passengers to fly home to Australia, with a second flight leaving for the US a few days later.
Crew members maintain that the ship’s managers endangered both passengers and crew by persisting with the cruise despite the WHO declaration of a pandemic.
“We were convinced that, in light of the international pandemic alert already in place by then, this trip would be cancelled,” the ship’s security officer, Lukasz Zuterek, told the Guardian.
Zuterek says he has been dismissed from duties and confined to his cabin, despite testing negative, after he recently spoke up against a plan by management to sail the ship to the Canary Islands.
The crew remains in limbo. Uruguay will not let them disembark until they all test negative for more than 14 days.
“We are very afraid, one of us already died, five others have been extremely ill,” said Paz Medina.
Saterskog on Thursday sent a message to all crew members assuring them that none of them would be forced to sail across the Atlantic against their will.
“We are staying in Montevideo to make sure the entire ship is tested negative or until we receive permission from local authorities to disembark crew when commercial flights are available again,” he wrote.
Crew members, meanwhile, are demanding to be evacuated via special charter flights as the passengers were.
Both CMI and Aurora said that the decision to set sail on 15 March was made “on the basis of the best information available to us at the time”, adding that no passengers or crew were suspected of having contracted coronavirus at the time of boarding.
CMI also said that on the day the ship set sail, only two coronavirus cases had been confirmed in the entire province of Tierra del Fuego, which includes Ushuaia.
“We were very aware of the globally evolving coronavirus situation and after deep consideration and having sought and received guidance from trusted and globally respected advisers, the decision was made to proceed. The safety and wellbeing of our passengers has always been paramount,” said a spokesperson for Aurora.
“We understand the frustrations of crew in this unprecedented emergency and believe … that the real issue is the repatriation of our seafarers, truly essential workers around the globe, throughout the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for CMI.
Vikand and Saterskog did not respond to a request for comment.