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


The North Pole

8 10 2008

“What do you mean you locked the keys in them?”    (old whaling boats, Antarctica)

For as long as I can remember, I have been captivated by tales of the great explorers and adventurers. I grew up thoroughly addicted to the stories of Mungo Park and John Speke, of Robert Falcon Scott and John Franklin and have been extraordinarily fortunate to have visited some of the places in which their great travels took place. The world is a much different place than it was a century or more ago when explorers travelled the world with gunships and flags seeking new trade routes, wealth and riches or territory to carve and claim, but the basic desire for wanderlust continues.


Some years ago I was invited to join an expedition to the South Pole led by legendary polar explorer Norman Vaughan. Vaughan had been the dog handler on Admiral Richard E Byrd’s historic 1928 expedition and had an Antarctic mountain named after him – which he scaled in 1994 at age 89! He became the last surviving member of that expedition and arguably the last link to that heroic age of Antarctic exploration.


Unfortunately, I couldn’t accept Vaughan’s invitation as the cost of participation was considerable and certainly well beyond the modest means of someone fresh from school. Although I have often mused how great an experience it would have been, my regret is tempered by the knowledge that it wasn’t my choice not to go, merely my misfortune that it was simply impossible. I have been to the Antarctic since, and although it wasn’t in the company of a legend and I didn’t make it to the South Pole, it still remains arguably the greatest experience of my life.


There are plenty of other incredible experiences available for anyone with the desire, health, general fitness and sufficient finances…even if they’re perhaps not led by a living legend or actually blazing new trails through virgin territory. Number one on my all-time dream list is the North Pole.


Although I would love to climb Mount Everest, I have neither the technical skills nor lottery-winnings to achieve that particular goal. The North Pole however, is achievable, provided you have the cost of a brand new mid-range automobile hanging around.


While professional explorers tend to tackle the North Pole by kayak, on foot or perhaps by snow-tyred Penny Farthing, adventurers can reach the top of the world from the comfort and relative luxury of a Russian ice breaker. There are barely a handful of departures each northern summer and all sail from well above the Arctic Circle.


Many trips start in Murmansk in far north Russia and sail through the Barents Sea and into the Arctic Ocean. Although travelling at the peak of summer, ice conditions dictate the ship’s progress and along with sonar and radar, an onboard helicopter is used to assist the ship as it drives its way through the formidable ice pack as close to 90 degrees as possible. All being well, the gangway is lowered and the ship’s contingent head down onto the ice to stand at the North Pole – an achievement for which many sacrificed all not so long ago. Once the small group have cheered their admission into a very exclusive club led by Robert Peary, the ship is re-boarded and the journey south continues.


The return trip heads via Franz Josef Land and watches for polar bears, walrus, whales and seals before arriving back in Russia 16 days after the odyssey began.


Peary, Cook, Amundsen, Franklin and Herbert might not be particularly impressed by the lack of danger and deprivations, but the trip is guaranteed to provide enough stories to last a lifetime. Although perhaps not for everyone, the North Pole is accessible for anyone with the dollars and desire…and the Adventure Blogger is more than happy to selflessly sample it on behalf of any sponsor eager to have their flag fly at the Top of the World.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan