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

Life’s a Beach

16 07 2008

Deception 1

The latest in beachwear, summer collection (Deception Island, Antarctica)

Every winter, millions of people from the northern hemisphere migrate south to sun-drenched islands to lounge on a beach and swim in clear ocean waters.  It sounded like an excellent plan to me as I slipped into my swimsuit…except for one minor detail:


The island was called Deception…and I was in the Antarctic.


I have never been a particularly conventional sort. I’m not exactly a rebel, but I do enjoy snubbing the latest fad, rarely watch the highest-rated television programmes and never cheer for the favourite team. Sometimes though, my zest for the unusual gets the better of me…which was clearly the case as I prepared for a polar plunge.


It was late summer in the Antarctic and the weather was a few degrees above freezing. Over the past days we had explored the Antarctic Peninsula in glorious sunshine and driving snow and sleet. We had relished still mornings and weathered gale force afternoons, and now, as we sailed north, we stopped at Deception Island.


Deception is a volcanic island that sits off the Antarctic coast in the South Shetlands. The caldera of the volcano collapsed 10,000 years ago leaving a horseshoe-shaped island that can be entered through a very narrow channel. It is a stark vista of black volcanic sand, steaming fumaroles, cloud-capped peaks and the remnants of a scientific station that had been swept away by lava a few years ago.  Under a leaden sky the ocean was dark and uninviting and although the island provided some protection from the open seas, the water chopped and lashed as we sailed into its watery sanctum.


We donned heavy clothes over our sun togs and headed for the beach. The wind battered and buffeted as we bounced towards the shoreline before clambering out onto the black sand. Wisps of steam rose from thermal rivulets that wound down to the ocean. We set to work with a shovel, dug a shallow pit not far from the shore and allowed it to fill with a few inches of the hot water. Once done, we stripped off, dashed through the chill and into the pool. Despite the brutal wind whipping in from the sea, the water was warm and reasonably comfortable even if the view was more Apocalypse than Acapulco.


Deception 2

“The black sand beaches attract ecstatic travellers from all over the world” 

I had experienced intense, mind-numbing, body-wracking cold before. An early morning outdoor cold shower in the windswept highlands of Landmannalaugur, Iceland, had left me shivering like a frightened Chihuahua. Childhood dips in the North Sea had me wishing my parents would sell me to the circus to be raised by trained chimps, but nothing compared to the agony of standing on an Antarctic beach, soaking wet, desperately trying to get dressed.


My fingers were blocks of wood that could barely pick up my clothes never mind lace boots or close a zip. My body twitched and convulsed involuntarily. My teeth would have chattered like hail on a tin roof…if my jaws hadn’t been frozen shut and the goose bumps resembled a stippled ceiling. The longer it took to get dressed, the colder I became. We’re not talking mere shrinkage here, we’re talking permanent dismemberment!


The zodiac trip back to the ship was a test of endurance…but the heat once on board and a tumbler of scotch (no ice!) soon had every extremity buzzing and humming with life-giving warmth and renewed circulation. I was exhilarated, rejuvenated and certifiably mad.


Back at home in the remnants of a Canadian winter, I was asked where I had gone on vacation. I replied that I had been lying on a deserted beach, swimming in clear water and just relaxing on a distant southern island. They said it sounded idyllic…and, hiding my blue fingernails, I had to agree that it was.


Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Surf’s Up!

2 07 2008

Drake wave 1

Ever been to sea, Billy? (The Drake Passage)

My first nautical experience was on a rowboat, traversing a moat.


It was a fine Scottish summer’s day: the wind howled down the hills and whipped the water into a vicious chop while rain lashed our faces. Against a leaden-grey sky, the castle ruin was a foreboding silhouette that loomed higher the closer we came. The oarsman was hooded and hunched against the elements. He spoke nary a word and with a gnarled hand gestured for us to climb aboard, before setting off across the churning black waters. The soulless dungeons, glimpses of unexplained shadows and the mournful wind through the battlements were nothing compared to the prospect of the return journey across the Styx with the aquatic equivalent of the Grim Reaper.


I was 5 years old and nautically scarred for life…which is why many years later I was not exactly thrilled by the prospect of spending several days crossing the roughest seas in the world: The Drake Passage.


The Drake Passage separates the southern tip of South America from Antarctica. It marks the convergence of the Southern Ocean, the Atlantic and the Pacific and for centuries has been the burial place of ships rounding Cape Horn. The Passage is renowned for its massive waves, rolling surf and the huge storms that come from nowhere and batter for days. It is not a place for the soft of heart – or those fearful of rowboats.


Still, the lure of the Antarctic was just far too strong and I decided that the polar reward more than justified the torment that lay between.


Rowboats aside, my nautical experience was rather limited once you exclude ferries and pedal boats. I had once sailed through the Baltic on a Russian ship from Helsinki to St Petersburg and spent several days sleeping on the deck of a felucca on the Nile, but this was the litmus test that would once and for all determine whether I was indeed an old sea dog, or merely a landlubber.


Sadly, lack of worthy experience had left me clueless as to whether I was susceptible to seasickness and unwilling to find out the hard way, I applied a scopolamine patch behind one ear. The patches prevent nausea rather than cure it, in theory at least! All I was missing was a parrot on my shoulder.


We sailed from Ushuaia, Argentina late one evening. The Beagle Channel was calm and we watched dolphins ride our bow wave. Once the sun had dipped behind the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, we all headed below deck for dinner. About 2am I awoke to find us rolling wildly from side to side. The resounding slam of waves on the metal hull resonated through our bed and rattled our heads. I mesmerically watched our curtains swing like a pendulum until I realised that the curtains were hanging straight…and it was the ship that was swinging like a pendulum.


Drake wave 2

Ever go to sea again, Billy?

From the bridge we watched 30-foot waves crash over the bow as we rolled 35-degrees in each direction. The blue sky above belied the savage ocean below. Albatrosses wheeled and soared while more sledgehammer-blows of water pounded the hull and slammed against the portholes. We made our way around the ship like orangutans on a jungle-gym, hand-over-hand grabbing and grasping for ropes strung from the low ceilings and brass railings fastened to the walls. Dinner was served on wet tablecloths to prevent the plates from flying off and shattering, chairs were chained to the floor and soup was prepared in mugs instead of bowls. In our cabin, we watched our boots tumble from wall to wall with each roll and at night, despite the best efforts of the ship’s crew, we would lie in bed and hear bottles and glasses smash in the galley below.


More than half of the ship’s passengers disappeared below deck on the first evening and didn’t reappear until we’d reached the sheltered waters of the South Shetlands. The air was fresh and bracing. Whales surfaced alongside us, seals lounged on ice floes, penguins scampered across icebergs and all was bliss, peace and harmony.


After a week exploring the Antarctic, we turned north and headed back towards the open sea. While those who had suffered intolerably on the way down headed back to their bunks to suffer in silence, I applied a new patch and relished the lash of the salty surf and the invigorating air.


For the return trip, the sky was as dark as that which had loomed over the Scottish moat years earlier, but this time I was the hooded sea dog with the gnarled hands relishing every roll and mighty wave.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008