Waiting for another Titanic - The risks of a holiday with icebergs -Feb 12th 2009 | SANTIAGO | from the
IT IS not quite Benidorm yet, but Antarctica has become an increasingly popular destination for the more
adventurous tourist. In this year’s southern-hemisphere summer season, running from November to March, as
many as 39,000 visitors are expected to make the trip from Tierra del Fuego, the nearest jumping-off point to
the world’s emptiest continent. That amounts to a fourfold increase in a decade. Officials in both Chile and
Argentina are getting increasingly worried about the risk of a fatal accident—“a new Titanic” as one Chilean
naval officer puts it.
Nobody has died so far, but there have been some near-collisions. In 2007 more than 150 people were
evacuated when their ship, the Explorer, sank after hitting an iceberg near the South Shetland Islands. They
were “very lucky with the weather”, says Chile’s deputy minister for the navy, Carolina Echeverría. That was
one of only two accidents last season, with a similar number the previous year and one so far this season.
Polar crises Cold logic Antarctica is becoming a popular destination for tourists who want to experience its
unspoiled beauty. But the huge increases in visitor numbers are threatening its ecology and its tranquillity.
Annie Kelly reports
Oil spills, shipwrecks, dumped waste, a proposed road to the South Pole, an ill-advised nuclear reactor -
human interaction in Antarctica has a history of pushing the last great wilderness to the edge of ecological
disaster. Now, apart from climate change, which is breaking off great chunks of ice, mass tourism is the
greatest threat the continent has ever faced. For centuries, the pristine region of 14m sq km of ice has evaded
the grasp of mainstream tourism. But there is now "congestion" at landing sites as tens of thousands of
people, in some of the largest cruise ships, head south.
Tourism is growing exponentially. Until 1987, fewer than 1,000 people annually travelled to the continent.
There were 6,500 in 1992/93, and double that number in 2002/3. This year, more than 28,000 people are
expected to come within inches of the kind of wildlife and landscapes normally seen only on film. The trend is
set to continue with "penguin fever" running high following the success of the March of the Penguins film.
In addition to ship-based tourism, the scale and spread of tourist activities is increasing. Adventurous types
can now strap on skis and slash fresh tracks down Antarctica's uninhabited slopes, take one of the many
helicopter rides that clatter daily over breeding penguin colonies, snowboard, climb mountains, kayak or
"Land-based tourism could have severe repercussions because nowhere is out of bounds," says James Barnes,
director of the Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition (Asoc), a group of 150 environmental groups. "If
tourists start treating Antarctica as an activity theme park, instead of respecting its status in international law
as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science, we've got a serious problem."
Asoc is concerned that the industry is rapidly diversifying. Large passenger vessels capable of carrying up to
800 people are now active in the Antarctic. Many carry helicopters, which increases the penetration to pristine
areas. "Mass commercial tourism has now arrived in the Antarctic," Asoc says. Possible impacts already
identified include sea and coastal pollution, littering, damage to flora and fauna, disruption of breeding
patterns and interference with sensitive research activities. And tourism is extending its fingers deep into the
Antarctic interior: the number of landing sites visited by tourists increased from 147 in 2003/04 to 175 in
2004/05. At the same time, established landing sites - usually beaches that are teeming with seals, penguins
and sea birds - are being exposed to heavy human traffic.
"Privately, some tour operators are saying the situation is getting farcical," says Ricardo Rosso, an
environmental consultant and Asoc member. "The word 'congestion' pops out frequently when talking about
vessels trying to access landing sites in Antarctica while preserving the illusion of a wilderness by deliberately
staying out of sight of each other."
As the tourist season coincides with the peak animal and bird breeding season, visitors are being deposited in
the heart of nesting penguin and young seal populations in their most vulnerable state.
But, says Asoc, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It points to long-term environmental impacts, such as marine
pollution and fuel emissions from higher numbers of tourist vessels. Preliminary research at Deception Island,
a popular landing spot known for its whaling history, indicates hydrocarbon contamination that correlates
with the intensity of tourist activity. A decade ago, tourist vessels carried no more than 60-100 people. Now,
says John Shears, head of the environment office at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), some of the large cruise
ships carry up to 1,000 passengers and use heavy fuel oil. The scientific community also has a dark history of
using the region as a scrapyard, dumping waste and leaving vehicles stranded on the pack ice to cut down on
overheads. In 1962, the Americans installed a nuclear reactor that was dismantled 10 years later after a series
of mishaps, including fires and radioactive leakages. But much of this activity was stopped by the Antarctic
Treaty System's 1991 environment protocol, which established rules covering all human activity, banned
mining, and established strict waste management controls.
However, according to the BAS, the US continues to build an access road from the McMurdo base through to
the South Pole, claiming that the road will help prevent environmental damage by stopping the daily flights
ferrying supplies and scientists to and from the South Pole.
And while the environment protocol regulates human activity, the failure to include any legally-binding
regulations on commercial tourism means that Antarctica remains open to any form or scale of tourist
Asoc wants to see tourism included in the framework of Antarctic governance, with enforceable and legally-
binding requirements, either through an additional annex to the environmental protocol or through a series of
formal measures under the Antarctic treaty itself. The tourism industry claims there are Antarctic treaty
recommendations and domestic regulations in place that control tourism. More than 95% of tour operators
are signed up to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (Iaato) and adhere to strict
environmental guidelines, such as not landing more than 100 passengers at a time.
But it remains to be seen if self-regulation will work. Already two tourist vessels, the Marco Polo and the
Discovery, are refusing to sign up to Iaato guidelines and are landing more than 100 passengers at a time at
sites across Antarctica.
"Antarctica is one of the few great wildernesses we haven't managed to destroy, and we have to keep it that
way," Barnes says. "If we don't act now we're in danger of finding ourselves with a situation that's gone
beyond our control, and Antarctica will end up as just another tourist destination."
It doesn’t sound like much of a holiday. Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth. But the
southern polar cap is becoming increasingly en vogue and the number of visitors has doubled here in the past
three years to nearly 30,000.
Tucked away on the opposite side of the globe, the world’s last great wilderness is now accessible and
relatively affordable for anyone seeking Antarctica’s “Big Five”: whales, seals, penguins, albatross and possibly
the continent’s greatest draw – the ice.
Much of the wonder of Antarctica lies in the great swathes of snowfields scoured by a blur of wind, the pitted
glaciers stealthily heading seaward and the colossal tabular icebergs shifting across a sea of glassy ice shards.
The extreme climate and inhospitable terrain have meant the continent has never been inhabited, one of the
things that makes it unique in this congested world.
The most popular gateway to the continent is the port of Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina. I boarded
the smallest ship in the harbour, the cardinal-red MS Explorer, which was one of the first passenger ships to
take visitors to Antarctica in 1970. It is a good size – carrying 100 passengers – with three tiers of open deck
Both factors are important in choosing a boat. The highlights of such a trip include standing on deck with a pair
of binoculars looking for whales and Wandering Albatross, as well as boarding the inflatable Zodiacs for micro-
cruises around the ice floes or for transfers to shore for more intimate wildlife viewing.
Explorer attracted mostly English-speaking passengers, mainly from the UK, Ireland and Australia. Some had
been planning the trip for a decade, a do-before-they-die mission. Others wanted to notch up their seventh
continent. Many wanted to add Antarctica to their photo albums. But regardless of the reason for coming,
everyone had a strong spirit of adventure and that common ground was important. As a small group in a
confined space, fellow passengers are an integral part of the trip. Meals are taken communally and public
spaces become very sociable. If you come here seeking solitude, you must pointedly stick your nose into your
We left Ushuaia in high spirits on a cold grey day, forging east into the Beagle Channel and beyond into the
dreaded Drake Passage. Half the time is spent reaching and returning from the continent – and that can
involve some rough stuff – for almost 600 miles. Storms around Cape Horn are notorious and although we
suffered 20-foot rolling waves and lashing winds, we were assured this was a very average crossing. For those
who surfaced, there were four expert lecturers on board talking to us about the birds, mammals and rocks we
might see. We heard numerous tales of unsung polar heroes who lost their fingers, toes and sometimes their
lives in the quest to plant a flag on uncharted territory.
Around 60º South, we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, an important threshold where warmer northern
waters meet cooler southern seas. This clash gives rise to an abundance of krill, the crustaceans that form the
staple diet of many Antarctic species. Here, we saw fin and minke whales and our first penguins, porpoising
alongside the boat. I watched a black-browed albatross coast above the churning waves, effortlessly gliding on
the high winds.
After the queasy crossing, it was with some relief that we arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula, a tail of land that
looks like the last flick of the Andes mountain range. The high peaks and deep channels make for much more
sheltered navigation. This is the most heavily visited part of Antarctica because it is the warmest and wettest
There are hyperactive colonies of penguins squabbling over stones (for their nests), chicks chasing parents for
a feed and all of them squirting out bright pink, stinky guano. Rocks are also splattered in yellow and green
lichens, a profusion of colour in this land of ice. Hauled out of the sea are snoozing Weddell seals, snorting
southern elephant seals and fur seals lolloping across the beaches.
Over the next four days, we visited eight landing sites around the peninsula, ranging from extinct ashen
volcanic cones to snow-free pebble beaches to rusting old whaling stations and the British base at Port
Lockroy. From the decks, we spotted humpback whales feeding: they blow a ring of bubbles, which rises to the
surface netting thousands of krill. The whales follow the bubble-net upwards, gulping down their prey, and
emerging head-first out of the water.
We boarded the sturdy Zodiacs to tour around Brown Bluff on the Tabarin Peninsula. Worried young Gentoo
penguins were taking to the water for the first time, with dozens of lethal leopard seals lying in wait. It was
easy pickings for the seals. We watched one patrol a penguin-laden iceberg, come in for the kill, snap up one
of the inexperienced fledgelings and aggressively slam the poor penguin back and forth on the surface of the
water. It certainly made for uneasy viewing.
We then rounded the peninsula and charted south towards the narrow Lemaire Channel, where the world
whitened, icebergs moved stealthily like pieces on a chessboard and the light dazzled on our first cloudless
day. The floating ice crowded the sea like almighty mythological creatures, before groaning and creaking as
they melted away, breaking apart, collapsing under their own weight.
Yet it is not just the wilderness that makes Antarctica unique. It is also the politics. No one owns the region
and anybody can come here. The failing of this arrangement is that no one is responsible for the continent’s
wellbeing. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) outlines sensible guidelines on
managing visitors but it is only a voluntary organisation. For now, it is certainly better than nothing and
anyone planning a visit should make sure their operator either subscribes to IAATO or has a good reason not
Antarctica does present a dilemma for anyone who cares about natural world. Visitors undoubtedly make an
impact on the environment, from the fuel we burn getting here, to our very footsteps and potential shipping
accidents. The last danger became evident this year; the MS Nordkapp cruise ship hit rocks near Deception
Island and spilt diesel oil into the bay.
Rick Atkinson, base manager at Port Lockroy, has been working in Antarctica for more than 20 years. He
believes it’s only a matter of time before lasting damage is done to the region. “Last year, 10,500 tourists
visited Port Lockroy. This year, we’re expecting 50 per cent more. I don’t believe that trend is at all
sustainable,” he says.
Stephen Ansfee, the expedition leader on MS Explorer, offers some sense of hope, however. “If we can create
ambassadors for Antarctica on these trips, that will only help secure the future of this place. Who wants to get
involved in protecting something they haven’t even seen?”
It’s a tough call. No matter how good those Attenborough documentaries are, Antarctica in reality – looking
across the loose ice pack and deep hummocky floes, that buffeting, drying wind against your face, the sense of
unbelonging – is something else entirely. The Last Continent’s future may now depend on just how many
respond to the call of the wild.
Tourism threat to Earth's last great wilderness UK moves to help thwart accidents and pollution from rise in
The Guardian, Monday 30 April 2007
Britain is to warn a summit on the Antarctic that soaring numbers of tourists flocking there on cruise ships
could have serious environmental implications for the world's last great wilderness. Delegates at the annual
Antarctic treaty meeting this week will call for tougher safety regulations. Experts say a fuel spill from a
stricken vessel close to shore could cause significant pollution that would endanger the region's wildlife and
take years to clean up.
Close to 30,000 people are expected to descend on Antarctica to observe penguins, seals and seabirds this
year - about four times as many as 10 years ago. Adding in those who pass through without coming ashore
brings the total to 37,000. Tourists are increasingly gazing in awe at the icy landscapes not just in small
former research vessels with space for up to 200 but from vast liners which spend just a few days in the
waters of the Antarctic peninsula as part of longer voyages.
Earlier this year the 109,000-tonne Golden Princess became the biggest cruise ship to sail into the region,
carrying 3,700 passengers and crew aboard a floating palace complete with five pools, a casino and a nine-
hole putting green. Its sister ship the Star Princess is due to return next year, with 16-day trips costing up to
£2,800 for the most luxurious accommodation. The two-week meeting of the signatories to the 1961 treaty
that designated Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science comes in the wake of the first
accident involving a tour boat in the region. The Norwegian MS Nordkapp ran aground at Deception Island in
January, spilling a small amount of fuel.
John Shears, of the British Antarctic Survey, who is the senior environmental adviser to the UK delegation to
the treaty meeting, said that although no one was hurt and other ships were nearby to help, the incident was
a "wake-up call".
"The Nordkapp was very lucky," Dr Shears said. "It was an ice-strengthened vessel with a crew who were
experienced working in those conditions and only about 350 people on board. "It used marine diesel fuel,
which disperses in water quite quickly, but some bigger ships use heavy fuel oil, which can be very persistent
and exceptionally difficult to clean up."
A spill of hundreds of tonnes of heavy fuel close to the shoreline could see thousands of penguins getting
coated in oil, Dr Shears said. Clean-up equipment would have to be brought in from South America or the
US, by which time the oil could have spread. "It would be very, very difficult to clean the coast up and also
to do something about the wildlife that had got coated in fuel. Nature is a great healer and will clean
everything up over time, but because heavy fuel oil is so persistent it could be several years before the
environment righted itself."
The British team also has wider concerns about the environmental impact of the bigger boats. "When those
ships set sail in the Antarctic they're burning fuel so they're adding to emissions and helping cause climate
change," Dr Shears said. "The Antarctic is a global warming hotspot. There have been temperature rises of 3C
over the last 30 years, which has resulted in widespread melting of glaciers and ice shelf collapse." The UK
wants a ban on ships which have not been specially strengthened to deal with sea ice entering areas of water
where ice coverage is more than 10%.
It is also calling for a "buddy system" for large ships so that if one gets into trouble there is always another
vessel nearby which it can call for help. Antarctica has no coastguard. "If you were trying to deal with large
cruise ships with large numbers of passengers, many of them elderly or retired, any rescue operation would be
complex and difficult," Dr Shears said. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact of visitors
coming ashore from the smaller tour boats, fearing they could disturb wildlife, trample on important mosses
and lichens and damage the region's unique ecosystems by introducing non-native species.
IAATO welcomed the British moves, saying that they would give the body more teeth. "I think the regulations
are going to tighten up a little bit, so there will be a little more pressure on the tourism industry to get after
those who are not signed up," John Splettstoesser of IAATO said, adding that larger boats already avoided sea
The (princess cruise) company employed strict measures to address issues including waste disposal, oil
pollution prevention, air emissions and wildlife protection, she added.