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Thursday, July 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Society Expeditions files for bankruptcy

By J. Martin McOmber
Seattle Times business reporter

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Society Expeditions, a Seattle company that specializes in high-end cruises to remote and often dangerous places, has filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy following creditors' seizure of its only ship two weeks ago in Alaska.

The move likely spells the end for a 30-year-old company that helped to pioneer the adventure travel industry and boasted such feats as offering the first crossing of the fabled Northwest Passage by a cruise ship.

No one from Society Expeditions returned calls yesterday, and a lawyer representing the company declined to comment. A posting on Society's Web site blamed the company's financial troubles on poor bookings for its spring and summer excursions.

The company's preliminary bankruptcy filing put its debts at $500,000 to $1 million, against less than $50,000 in assets. Society estimated it has between 200 and 999 creditors.

The 160-passenger World Discoverer was seized June 18 in Nome while preparing for another cruise. The ship had a crew of 100. Passengers arriving for the cruise — which typically ran two weeks and cost $6,000 to $7,000 — were sent home.

The market for high-end cruises has been strong and seems to be picking up steam, based on 2005 bookings, said Tim Jacox, vice president of American Safari Cruises in Lynnwood. But he said Society faced tough challenges.

"The way they phrased it, they were seeing some good sales success for 2005, but they didn't have a strong enough 2004 to get them over the hump," Jacox said.

Founded in 1974, Society's cruising grounds ranged from the Antarctic Islands to Siberia and from Cape Horn to the Middle East. It offered lecturers from archeologists, collected data about whale migration and catered to passengers with a taste for luxury.

"If you wanted to go to Antarctica with white table clothes and white gloves, that was the way to go," said Bruce Fisher, director of Hibernia Nordic Cruise Line, which is involved in a financial dispute with Society.

The past few years were rocky for Society, which lost a ship and then faced an involuntary bankruptcy petition in Seattle. Its troubles started in 2000, when its previous ship, also called World Discoverer, struck an uncharted coral reef near the Solomon Islands. The ship was lost after the captain ran it ashore to evacuate passengers.

The company survived two years before launching its new World Discoverer in 2002 — a recently refurbished "ice-class" ship capable of sailing in extreme environments. But the company soon ran into financial straits.
 
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In an attempt to take over the company, Fisher said he filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Society last year after another creditor, The Bank of Scotland, briefly seized the World Discoverer.

Fisher said his company owns a 50 percent stake in Society for arranging financing for the new ship, a claim Society disputed. The case was dismissed in November after Fisher failed to post a $500,000 bond.

Society is a subsidiary of Society Explorer International, based in Bermuda. The company runs another subsidiary in Germany.

Fisher said he has not given up on gaining control of Society. "We are definitely going to pursue it and we will pursue it internationally if we have to," he said. "We don't anticipate there will be a whole lot left in America."

J. Martin McOmber: 206-464-2022 or mmcomber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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