British Columbia

Troubled B.C. expedition cruise company owes thousands in wages, former employee says

Caro St. John is one of several former employees who said they struggled to receive payment for contracts worked on board trips with One Ocean Expeditions, which cancelled a trip to Antarctica last week at the last minute.

One Ocean Expeditions asks for patience during a difficult period of 'restructuring'

Caro St. John said she thought the chance to work on a One Ocean Expedition cruise would be the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead, it left her in debt as she awaits $6,400 USD in unpaid wages. (Caro St. John)

Antarctica was always an elusive destination for Caro St. John — the final continent on her travel wish list seemingly unreachable due to the long, costly journey by ocean. 

Earlier this year, the Vancouver woman made it happen when she applied for and landed a bartending role on a ship with One Ocean Expeditions, a B.C.-based adventure cruise company that charges tourists up to $30,000 USD for the trip of a lifetime to the southern tip of the earth.

But more than six months after finishing her contract with the company, St. John says she is still owed $6,400 USD. After months of back-and-forth with the company, she still isn't sure when she's getting paid. She is among several former employees who have raised concerns about the company's payment practices.

"Your employees are your most important asset," said St. John, 36.

"We're the ones who make the experience on the boats above and beyond. And then to not pay them and not communicate with them I think is very poor management."

One of many problems

The alleged non-payment of wages is one of several problems plaguing One Ocean Expeditions. 

One of the company's three ships was damaged last year after running aground. Then, two ships were recalled by their Russian owners this summer. One Ocean's remaining ship, RCGS Resolute, was arrested in Nunavut in May for $100,000 owed to a Nova Scotia-based company and was arrested again in Halifax last month.

Under maritime law, a ship can be arrested and stopped from leaving a port when a court action is pending against it. An arrest can happen for a variety of reasons, including if a ship has been involved in a collision or death. 

On Thursday, One Ocean Expeditions cancelled a bird-watching cruise to Antarctica, leaving up to 140 guests stranded in Argentina, including Gill Havard who booked the 19-day trip with dreams of sailing alongside albatrosses, Atlantic petrels and chinstrap penguins.

Caro St. John travelled to Antarctica as an employee with One Ocean Expeditions, where she photographed penguins and other wildlife. (Submitted/Caro St. John)

Instead, the retired teacher from the U.K. found out through her tour company, Mauritius-based company Rockjumper Birding Tours, that the trip had ended before it began.

One Ocean Expeditions put itself on the map, in part, due to its ties to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.

The company's remaining ship, the RCGS Resolute, was given its prefix from the society as a honorific due to its contributions to the society, said John Geiger, the society's CEO, in an email.

The cruise company has done expeditions with RCGS and has provided free trips to student winners of its student competitions.

The society has no involvement in the business operations of One Ocean Expeditions or its namesake ship, Geiger said, as is the case with all of its travel relationships.

Cancelled Antarctica trip strands passengers

One Ocean Expeditions has not responded to multiple requests for comment from CBC News.

It has told passengers a medical issue delayed the start of the Antarctica trip. Then, after passengers had flown to Argentina, it cancelled the trip altogether, blaming it on fuel delivery delays in Puerto Madryn. Then Rockjumper stepped in, offering to pay $230,000 worth of fuel bills to save the trip. 

"[One Ocean Expeditions] were not able to provide us with assurances that even with fuel, they were able to operate the cruise," Rockjumper said in a statement to passengers. 

One Ocean Expeditions offered affected passengers their choice of a future cruise, but there was no mention of refunds. As frantic passengers called the company, few answers were given.

Caro St. John worked as a bartender on a One Ocean Expedition trip to Antarctica from January to March 2019.

On Tuesday, One Ocean Expeditions posted a statement on its Facebook page. It did not address the ill-fated cruise or the staff payment issues, and instead asked for patience during a difficult period of "restructuring."

It said the withdrawal of two of its ships by the Russian company led to a series of "complex circumstances" and a violation of its contract, which the company is continuing to address.

"Unfortunately, the difficult reality is that in recent months we have fallen short of these high expectations we set for ourselves as a leader in the expedition cruise industry," the statement said.

Havard said her trip cost $17,000 USD — more than what she would usually spend on two trips.

She booked it in November 2017.

"Antarctica was always a dream, the seventh continent," Havard said in an email. "There had been a lot of anticipation."

'This isn't our fault'

Former staff say a lack of transparency has been a longstanding issue. 

Ian Peck worked contracts as a bartender and guide for One Ocean Expeditions for eight years. Despite quitting last year due to payment issues, he was surprised to learn his photo and biography remain on the company's website. 

"None of us knew for years why we just constantly had issues with not being paid," said Peck, who was eventually paid for his work. 

"There just seems to be a lot of lying, just a lot of secrecy and never being upfront with employees."

For St. John, the chance to work on a One Ocean Expedition cruise should have been the opportunity of a lifetime.

Instead, it has left her in debt. 

"This isn't our fault," she said.

"They've had unfortunate circumstances but that doesn't mean that we and all the other contractors and employment agencies that they used should be impacted by that."

With files from Micki Cowan