Crew for troubled polar tour firm say they haven't been paid in months

By Leyland Cecco

An adventure travel company that charges upwards of US$20,000 for a single trip to polar regions has failed to pay many of its contractors in nearly a year, leaving some unable to cover living expenses, according to current and former crew.

One Ocean Expeditions – which announced on 29 October plans to restructure amid financial difficulties – also cancelled a recent trip to Antarctica after it was unable to purchase sufficient fuel, abruptly returning guests to a port in Argentina before it reached the southernmost continent.

“Unfortunately, the difficult reality is that in recent months, we have fallen short of these high expectations that we have set for ourselves as a leader in the expedition cruise industry,” the company announced on Facebook.

While it struggles to refund passengers and booking companies, the troubled British Columbia-based company has failed pay its many contractors for months, according to ten current and former crew members interviewed by the Guardian.

Many of the guides and workers aboard ships run by One Ocean, who come from all over the world, requested anonymity for fear they would be unable to find work in the industry if identified.

Until recently, they have been hesitant to speak out about unpaid wages, worried that a bankruptcy could mean they are never compensated for their work. But the recently cancelled trip – and announcement the company is restructuring – has prompted worries the company could soon collapse without repaying its debts.

“The people that have been hit the worst are the people that really invested themselves in the company and worked full seasons for them – and worst of all, the people who are couples, with both members of the couple dependent on the company for the income,” said Sam Edwards, who worked as a guide for two seasons in Antarctica.

Founded in 2007, One Ocean Expeditions takes passengers on adventure trips to both the Arctic and Antarctica. Led by Andrew Prossin, the company advertises a commitment to passenger satisfaction and the environment.

“In everything we do we focus on the people that matter the most – you, our guests, our energetic shipboard crew and staff, and our tireless ‘back office’ team that make the magic happen behind the scenes,” the company’s website says.

Emails to the company and Prossin went unanswered, as did numerous calls to the company’s headquarters in Squamish, British Columbia.

The company has received positive coverage in the past, with the Royal Canadian Geographic Society awarding Prossin the Lawrence J Burpee Medal, one of its highest honours, for his role in the discovery of the long-lost ships of the British polar explorer Sir John Franklin.

Many who have worked with the company feel One Ocean’s public messaging is at odds with the current compensation and treatment.

“There’s been absolutely no communication or apology from the owners who love to tout themselves as such a family business with that personalized touch,” one crew member claimed in an email.

Under payment terms seen by the Guardian, contractors were to invoice for the preceding month worked. They would be paid 50% within that month’s payment period — and the rest would be compensated “on or around 60 days” later.

Many staff alleged they were “stonewalled” when asking for pay. For an estimated 100 contractors – some of whom are owed tens of thousands – little to no payment has been received despite months of requesting compensation for the work.

One contractor claims to have lost their home and their vehicle due to delayed payment by the company. While they praised the company for its early years, the current situation has left them broke. “Every week I ask when we’ll be paid. I was always told next week, next week,” the contractor said.

In recent days, two members of senior management appear to have left the company, changing their employment status to “Consultant” on LinkedIn.

Contractors claim to have not received any information from the company itself on the restructuring. Instead, they learned about the latest development from emails forwarded to them from travel agents and a post on the company’s Facebook page.

One Ocean has faced a number of financial setbacks in recent months, beginning last August, when their ship, the Akademik Ioffe ran aground in the Canadian Arctic. Soon after, a dispute with Russian contractors culminated in the company losing the ability to hire two ships.

Because of financial and logistical difficulties, the company has been forced to cancel a number of trips in recent months. But people who have worked with One Ocean say the company is quick to rebook passengers on future trips, rather than provide a refund – a practice that has led to numerous disgruntled customers venting their outrage on social media and travel review pages.

On its most recent trip, which concluded on 24 October, One Ocean was forced to abandon its planned itinerary after it was unable to fuel the ship. Billed as a voyage to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antartica, the trip should have lasted 19 days and cost a minimum of $21,195.

After delays mounted, the expedition leader told the estimated 140 guests – from the UK, South Africa, New Zealand, Mauritius, the US and Canada – that the ship would be returning to port in Argentina.

“There was a range of emotion in response to that – it was like the stages of grief. People were crying,” said passenger Julie Pearce. “One couple in their 80s had saved their whole life for this journey and saved $50,000 to make this happen. And they were in tears.”

On a recent trip from Scotland to Iceland, all 25 of the crew suspected they were unlikely to get paid for the trip, one crew member said.

“We all knew that we were basically doing this trip for free,” said the crew member. “But we obviously wanted the passengers to get the best possible experience. We wanted to smile and be happy for them.”

Weeks ago, contractors took matters into their own hands, having a maritime lien placed on the ship the RCGS Resolute, the company’s main ship. Sheriffs in the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, prevented the ship from leaving port until outstanding bills were paid.

The Resolute was eventually released after One Ocean paid outstanding invoices to its contractors. But those payments only covered salaries on the Resolute – not other ships contractors have worked on for One Ocean, including the two Russian ships from last year.