Why you should care
Because popularity can sometimes be very destructive.
Antarctica is suddenly hot. As the continent inspires new fascination, shipyards worldwide are racing to build ice-strengthened cruise vessels offering unprecedented luxuries for voyages to the planet’s ultimate getaway.
Landing on a pristine Antarctic shore, it is tempting to imagine that the ice-bound territory’s stunning remoteness will forever protect its penguins, seals and whales. This is a last frontier without countries, hotels or even clocks, as time zones narrow and converge into irrelevance. But a tourism boom looms over Antarctica’s horizon. Tens of thousands of additional sightseers a year, plus a growing number of thrill-seekers in yachts and aircraft, could tax a fragile environment already stressed by global warming. Gone is the era when converted Soviet survey vessels provided spartan transport for the odd adventure traveler.
As two dozen polar-class ships debut in the next few years, tour operators expect visitor numbers to soar 40 percent above the record 52,000 set during Antarctica’s most recent November-to-March summer.
A ship under construction in Portugal for U.S.-based Quark Expeditions will feature cabins with glass walls fronting on to icebergs, glaciers and peaks. Shipyards in Romania and Norway are building a $314 million “luxury” icebreaker for Ponant. The French company is adding six expedition ships to its fleet, each with a multisensory underwater lounge where passengers on “body-listening sofas” can watch diving penguins and seals.
Attuned to the irony of burning fossil fuels to tour the melting continent, cruise operators are highlighting the reduced fuel consumption of some new ships. Norway’s Hurtigruten is pioneering the use of hybrid vessels that can switch to silent battery propulsion.
The price tag for crossing Antarctica off one’s bucket list can easily run into five figures. For a premium, travelers can add flights to leapfrog the Drake Passage, a notoriously rough two-day stretch of ocean between Antarctica and South America’s Cape Horn. Antarctica XXI, a Chilean company that is also building a vessel, can fly customers to the continent’s scenic South Shetland Islands on week-long air-cruise packages starting at $11,000. Or, for $84,000, White Desert can whisk you from Cape Town in a Gulfstream jet on an eight-day safari to the South Pole, stopping to see emperor penguins beyond the reach of most cruise ships.
The prospect of boatloads of sightseers, some in ship-launched helicopters and submarines, alarms Ségolène Royal, French ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic poles. “We are witnessing a race toward large-scale tourism that is dangerous for ecosystems,” she said in May at a Buenos Aires meeting of the 53 Antarctic Treaty member countries, which oversee the continent. Royal said the activity creates “considerable disturbance”, a statement that cruise operators dispute.
Tour companies anticipating rapid growth ’aim to manage growth ourselves before it gets managed for us’
John McKeon, president, Polar Latitudes
In January, tourists eager to see Antarctica boarded the Hebridean Sky, a refurbished cruise vessel, where an upper-deck single cabin cost $14,275 for a 10-day excursion. The ship set sail from Ushuaia, an Argentine boomtown billed as the city at the end of the world. Anyone game for traveling way down under will have a flair for adventure, so each of the ship’s 100 passengers had a story. Travelers included an octogenarian retired Israeli fighter pilot and his daughter and grandson; backpackers on the Latin America circuit; a couple who had ridden to Ushuaia all the way from Colorado by motorcycle; and an Australian woman determined to be the first pole dancer known to have performed in Antarctica.
Those prone to seasickness braced themselves for two days of Drake-induced misery. But medicated patches and other remedies proved effective, keeping attendance high at buffet meals and lectures by expedition staff members. Marine biologist Marty Garwood, Sea Life Sydney Aquarium head penguin keeper, described traits of Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins. Historian Falcon Scott told tales of his grandfather, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the famed explorer who died in 1912 on his return journey after reaching the South Pole.
The only topic avoided outright by expedition staff was climate change. John McKeon, president of the expedition company Polar Latitudes, says he prefers to let facts speak for themselves, having seen disagreements fester in a ship’s confined quarters.
No briefing, though, could have conveyed the shimmering beauty of Lemaire Channel, an ocean alley that the captain gingerly navigated. The glistening sea brimmed with sparkling white and luminous blue icebergs, some draped with seals.
Passengers settled into a daily routine, boarding Zodiac inflatable boats for morning and afternoon landings and hikes to visit penguin and seal colonies. The sun shone 19 hours a day. Temperatures hovered above freezing.
Minke whales frolicked next to the Zodiacs. A massive humpback breached off the ship’s bow. Passengers got to name the whale after scientists at happywhale.com reviewed photos of its tail’s unique markings, determining that the humpback had never before been reported. Inspired by the pattern’s resemblance to abstract art, they christened the cetacean Pollock, as in Jackson.
Disembarking passengers stepped through a tub of disinfectant, careful not to spread germs or invasive species. Ashore on rocks and snow, they tried to keep the prescribed five meters from wildlife, but the penguins had missed that memo. The birds strutted by, seeming to shrug off human presence.
The question was whether such visits disturbed the birds. How might the penguins react to the next shipload of passengers, and to the next and next, as growing numbers of ships line up to visit limited sites?
Answering such questions, and pinpointing accountability in Antarctica, is more difficult than doing so in, for example, the Galápagos Islands, another outpost where animals and birds exhibit little fear of humans. There, Ecuador strictly regulates access.
Antarctica, with no national government, is administered by parties to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which maintains the continent as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Representatives of those nations meet each year and adopt resolutions by consensus, a glacial system with no provision for close supervision on the ground. Under a 2009 resolution passed by the parties, a cruise ship may put ashore only 100 passengers at once. Only one vessel at a time may visit a landing site. At least one guide must accompany every 20 visitors at landings. Vessels carrying more than 500 passengers cannot put anyone ashore.
Over the years, tour companies have developed a system of self-regulation. Ship landings are choreographed months ahead by their industry group, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Companies anticipating rapid growth aim to “manage it ourselves before it gets managed for us”, says Polar Latitudes’ McKeon. The industry association recently banned the recreational use of drones in coastal areas.
Damon Stanwell-Smith, the association’s executive director, says the group can handle the projected increase of 20,000 ship-borne visitors. Stanwell-Smith is not a tourism huckster but a marine biologist with a British Antarctic Survey Ph.D. who has completed more than 500 under-ice dives in the Southern Ocean. He dismisses Royal’s specter of Antarctica being overrun by tourists as “political bombast, a narrative of those who’ve never been to the continent”. He says Antarctica in its pristine form is a golden goose that his group’s 50-member companies have every incentive to preserve.
The area frequented by most tourists is less than one-sixth the size of London’s Heathrow airport, say researchers at Stony Brook University in the U.S. IAATO managers point out that the 43,000 visitors who stepped ashore during Antarctica’s 2017-18 season amounted to less than two-thirds of the attendance at American football’s most recent Super Bowl. But Heather Lynch, a statistical ecologist at Stony Brook whose team recently announced the discovery of 1.5m Adélies on Antarctica’s Danger Islands, warns that proliferating cruise ships will run out of sites and will have to range farther, visiting penguins unaccustomed to humans. “Unhabituated penguins are much flightier, much more aggressive and vocal when approached by humans,” Lynch says, “and much more likely to simply abandon their nests when approached even at the five-meter guidelines [set by the tour association].”
What keeps people up at night is the idea of an Exxon Valdez in the Antarctic, a major grounding or something really environmentally catastrophic.
Heather Lynch, statistical ecologist, Stony Brook
Tour leaders quip that they’ve never heard of anyone being mauled by a penguin. They confirm that they will probably range farther, and acknowledge that untended nests are vulnerable to skuas, dive-bombing seabirds that relish penguin eggs and chicks.
On the other hand, Lynch notes research that found penguins in a heavily visited colony do better because skuas are spooked by tourists. Scientists analysing guano (bird excrement) at such sites have so far found no increase in stress hormones, she says.
Researchers also benefit from data crowdsourced from cruise-ship passengers participating in citizen-science initiatives — recording water temperatures, turbidity and other indicators. Travelers returning from Antarctica are a constituency that generally favors conservation.
On balance, Lynch thinks the impact of direct visitors is comparatively minor. She is more concerned with the global warming that threatens Adélies, and the risk that ships will run aground at unfamiliar landing sites. The Explorer cruise ship hit ice and sank off Antarctica in 2007; a passing tour vessel rescued all 154 passengers and crew. “What keeps people up at night is the idea of an Exxon Valdez in the Antarctic, a major grounding or something really environmentally catastrophic,” Lynch says.
Environmentalist Claire Christian, executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition secretariat, notes that membership of the tour industry association is voluntary, meaning companies could choose to disregard its guidelines as competition increases. She calls on treaty members to increase monitoring and exercise their legal authority, intervening, for example, to protect ecologically fragile landing sites. “It’s up to the parties of the Antarctic Treaty to address this projected growth,” she says. Her organization also favors restricting commercial fishing by enlarging a network of marine protected areas.
Scientists and tour operators, meanwhile, say they are galled by a growing number of private yachts whose owners flout conservation and safety guidelines. Evidence of the increase is largely anecdotal and conceivably exaggerated by cruise operators with an interest in controlling tourism. Some transgressions could be unintentional. Adventurers might not realize, for example, that foot holes left by visitors who crash through snow crust can become fatal dungeons for penguins. But Rob McCallum, founding partner of Eyos Expeditions, an IAATO member that offers extreme adventures, says he encounters abuses by renegade yachtsmen operating without permits from their home countries.
“You see YouTube clips of visitors pushing vessels too hard in ice, or not being careful with fuel, or getting too close to wildlife,” McCallum says. Tour association members can report offenses to permitting countries, which don’t necessarily follow up, he says.
Norway tried to prosecute one of its citizens, sailor Jarle Andhoy, after three crew members died when his sailboat Berserk sank off Antarctica in 2011. Officials accused Andhoy of not taking out sufficient insurance, spilling fuel and operating without authorization in a protected area. However, he was acquitted in 2016 after another controversial Antarctic voyage.
Chinese tour companies have started requiring clients to pass environmental-awareness tests, including wildlife viewing etiquette. Guides at shipboard exits have intervened to enforce lining up, a rare practice in China.
While decrying such incidents, Western tour operators are focused mainly on acculturating travel companies and passengers from the cruise industry’s fastest-growing market, China. Within a year, China could displace the U.S. as the leading source of visitors to Antarctica.
Nate Small, a guide with Polar Latitudes, says Chinese tour companies have started requiring clients to pass environmental-awareness tests, including wildlife viewing etiquette. Guides at shipboard exits have intervened to enforce lining up, a rare practice in China, after complaints from Western passengers.
Antarctic cruise ships ran 95 percent full last season amid global growth in expedition cruising. With so much capacity coming on stream, it is possible that tour operators could overshoot demand and prices could plunge, especially if the world economy falters.
“I can think of a lot of reasons to lose sleep, and that’s one of them,” says McKeon of Polar Latitudes, which is sticking with its two small refurbished cruise vessels. “Some of these projects may be a little overblown. If and when the tide turns, you’ll see ships rapidly leaving, heading for the Caribbean or the South Pacific.”
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