Antarctic Tourism

21 04 2009


The 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting ended last week in Baltimore, Maryland. Among many issues discussed by the assembled scientists and world leaders was the impact of tourism on the Antarctic and concerns that its steady growth could potentially damage the fragile environment. chinstrap-penguin-1-mw


Only a few decades ago, Antarctica was the exclusive domain of scientists and explorers but tourism has quadrupled in the past ten years with more than 46,000 people visiting the continent and surrounding area last year alone. Compare that with 1990’s total of 5,000 visitors and it is clear that tourism to the End of the World has exploded.


Hillary Rodham Clinton was amongst those expressing a desire to see tighter controls on Antarctic tourism. Although there was no call to ban tourism completely, there were suggestions for limits on the number of ships and landings, restrictions on how close vessels come to shore, a ban on the construction and development of tourist facilities and hotels on the continent, and rules on waste discharge from ships.


In the past few years there have been a number of well-publicised incidents involving small, specialised Antarctic expedition cruise vessels. Although none resulted in death or serious environmental damage, these events did raise awareness of the risks involved in operating in such a remote, hostile and fragile region. Of particular concern to scientists and environmentalists are the large cruise ships which visit Antarctic waters as part of South American itineraries. Although these ships attempt to avoid the ice and do not yet send passengers ashore, fears remain that without ice-strengthened hulls and experienced pilots, one will eventually have a problem and the result will be an epic disaster for both the 5,000 passengers and the environment.


A further concern centres on the impact that tourism has on the area’s fragile ecosystem. The British Antarctic Survey has been monitoring gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula for several years. During that time they have determined that although the area is heavily visited, provided the tourists are properly managed and controlled while ashore, the impact is minimal. However, as numbers increase there remains the distinct possibility of less well-supervised visits and negative interaction or possibly even the introduction of disease, rats or insects which would cause devastation.


As can be evidenced by the British Antarctic Survey’s study, the majority of companies that currently take adventure travellers to the Antarctic are responsible and environmentally sensitive. Visitors are properly prepared for their trips even before they leave home, and once there they are carefully supervised in what is unquestionably the trip of a lifetime. Delegates to the conference agreed that tourism has tremendous value in publicising the threats from Global warming, pollution and other issues that the Antarctic increasingly faces. There was general consensus that efforts should be made to keep both visitors and the environment safe rather than close the area completely, but it is clear that maximum numbers and greater restrictions will likely be imposed in the near future.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009


Global Warming

3 03 2009


“What do you mean, you locked the keys inside?” (off Vernadsky, Antarctic)


Not many people stroll through the Louvre, encounter the Mona Lisa and exclaim “Oh, is this where it is?” However, sometimes on our travels we do encounter things in the most unexpected of places and suddenly feel emotions akin to the surprise and satisfaction of finding something worthwhile in a Christmas cracker. I had one such experience in the Antarctic, and no, it wasn’t a polar bear!


Rarely does a day pass when we don’t hear reference to Global Warming. We’re barraged by images of melting glaciers, flooded towns and violent storms all attributed to the steadily increasing temperature of our planet. One of the first indications came from scientists who detected a growing hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic. In the pre-Al Gore “Inconvenient Truth” days, the discovery wasn’t widely reported in the mainstream press and largely went unnoticed. Now, both believers and debunkers are familiar with the suggested ramifications of that discovery.vernadsky


Hugging the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula on Galindez Island sits the Vernadsky Research Station, an Ukrainian facility with a long history. Britain first established a base there in 1947 and named it after Shackleton expedition member Sir James Wordie. Thirty years later, the base was renamed Faraday Station and remained a significant part of the British Antarctic Survey until 1996 when it was taken over by the Ukraine and renamed after scientist Vladimir Vernadsky.


We weaved past icebergs before landing on the rocky outcrop that was home to the small base. The original Wordie House still remains, although newer buildings now protect the scientists and their valuable work from the harsh elements. We stumbled ashore from our zodiac laden with fresh vegetables in gratitude for the staff’s kindness in hosting us for a few hours. On a clear Antarctic summer day with the temperature a few degrees above freezing and only a gentle breeze, life didn’t seem too bad. It’s only when you contemplate the long winter with its katabatic winds, deadly cold and months of darkness that you appreciate how difficult life can be for the dozen or so researchers who winter-over.


The scientists led us on a tour of the base. We saw their modest sleeping quarters, laboratories, work rooms and communications equipment. The walls were lined with photographs and mementoes of previous crews, supply ships and visitors. As a reminder of the base’s British origins, upstairs there was a cozy wooden-beamed pub complete with bar and games table.


Further down the hall a ladder led through a ceiling hatch and into the attic. There, beneath the eaves was the large Dobson Spectrophotometer which first detected the alarming growth of the hole in the ozone. Until the ‘80s, it was predicted that the ozone layer would decrease by approximately 7% over a 60-year period. Shortly afterwards – and largely based on observations conducted at the Faraday base – it was determined that as much as 50% of the ozone over a localized area of the Antarctic had in fact disappeared – and within a few years that number had increased to as much as 77% of its pre-1975 levels.


As the ozone layer is the Earth’s natural sunscreen and protects humans, plants and animals by filtering out harmful UV-B radiation, its depletion was an immediate cause for concern. Standing in my sock-feet in a warm hut in the Antarctic, staring at an inanimate object and realising that it was ultimately responsible for the term “Global Warming” and the birth of the unprecedented international interest in the fragility of our world, was an odd experience. Not preserved behind glass in a museum, but still in regular use monitoring the upper atmosphere was a piece of equipment responsible for an environmental discovery arguably as important as any other in the 20th century.


There, in the attic of a hut at the end of the world sat the unheralded environmental equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and there were no brass plaques, souvenir postcards or fridge magnets in sight!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

…And To All, A Good Night 2

28 12 2008



Cartoon and post by: Simon Vaughan

Take Only Photographs…

8 12 2008


“Psst, wanna buy a souvenir?”      (Chinstrap penguins, Antarctic)


“Leave only footprints, take only photographs” is an oft-quoted sentiment stressing the importance of leaving the environment precisely as you found it. However, in the Antarctic, it is actually the law.


Under international treaty, unless you have a scientific permit, it is illegal to take home any souvenirs from the Antarctic. That means anything: whether a rock, feather, shell, vial of sand or historic artifact. If you visit one of the international research stations, you are often able to purchase postcards, badges or patches from the scientists…but that’s the limit of souvenir hunting at the bottom of the world. Then again, you’re probably not venturing across the wild Southern Ocean expecting to find a Louis Vuitton warehouse outlet!


Now, I’m not the sort of person who has a bathroom full of shells from all over the world but I do like the occasional something to serve as a reminder of my travels in addition to my photographs, memories and credit cards bills. The Antarctic really isn’t the place to indulge in a little retail therapy but then again, the experience itself is so rewarding that souvenirs aren’t particularly necessary.


But I did have a great compulsion to bring something tangible home from the Antarctic. Perhaps because it is the end of the world. Perhaps because it is a place that stole my heart as deeply as tales of its explorers had long-stolen my imagination. Or perhaps simply because I realistically know that I will likely never return. Regardless of what drove my compulsion, I stood on a volcanic black sand beach and gazed longingly down at my feet. Much like a land-locked Ancient Mariner, there was sand sand everywhere but not a bit to touch.


I would be lying to say that I wasn’t tempted to bend down, feign adjusting my boots, and surreptiously snare a handful of terra-australis-incognita-firma for my pocket. But either I really do care for the environment, am extremely obedient or just frightened of being locked in an Antarctic jail with drunken-and-disorderly penguins and pick-pocketing krill…I chose not to indulge my desires and instead returned to my ship empty-handed and empty-pocketed.


Back at home I unpacked my bag and began to store away my winter gear. As I pulled out my boots, something fell onto the floor. I reached down and there were several miniscule, black stones. I picked them up and inspected them in the palm of my hand. Tiny little fragments of a distant land that had been wedged in the treads of my boot. I touched them gently and reverentially before placing them on a shelf.


Although unnoticed by everyone else, those little specks will forever be treasured…until the Antarctic police come knocking on my door and drag me off to penguin penitentiary.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 14

21 10 2008

“When did they say they’d have it fixed?”   (abandoned whaling ship, Antarctic)


 “A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

– Lao Tzu




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 30

14 10 2008

Turn left at the lavender floe, right at the purple berg, and straight…  (Antarctica)


“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.”
– Rosalia de Castro




Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 75

24 09 2008

“Are you sure we’re going the right way? And what does ‘anthropomorphise’ mean any way?”    (Antarctic)

“Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”  
 – Ernest Hemingway


Photo and post:  Simon Vaughan