The challenging rescue operation launched after a Russian ship became trapped in Antarctic pack ice last month shows the inherent risks facing the frozen continent’s burgeoning tourist industry, experts say.
Antarctica represents one of the last frontiers for adventurous travelers, an icy wonderland of glaciers, emperor penguins and seemingly endless white expanses.
However, as those aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy found out, blizzards, icebergs and treacherous seas are also a fact of life at one of the most remote locations on Earth, where help is often thousands of kilometers away.
“It does indeed serve as a reminder that it’s an extreme environment that we’re dealing with, whether it’s scientific expeditions going down there, or tourism cruises,” said Daniela Liggett, a specialist in Antarctic tourism regulation at New Zealand’s Canterbury University.
Tourist numbers in Antarctica have grown from less than 5,000 in 1990, to about 35,000 a year, according to industry figures.
Most visitors reach the world’s southernmost continent by sea, with some paying in excess of US$20,000 for a luxury cabin during the peak period from November to March.
There is also a healthy market for sightseeing flights, despite an incident in 1979 in which an Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 passengers on board.
The first recorded tourist ship to the region was an Argentine vessel, Les Eclaireurs, which made the voyage with 100 paying passengers in 1958.
Since then, there have been concerns about tourists’ potential impact on the untamed wilderness and the difficulty rescuers would face reaching a ship if it hit serious trouble in the freezing waters.
“What’s unique to the Antarctic is that it’s very remote and if something happens to a bigger ship, then it will be almost impossible to rescue all the passengers in a timely fashion,” Liggett said.
With conventional rescue services so far away, the task of helping stricken vessels often falls to the scientific missions, disrupting their carefully planned research programs.
French Polar Institute director Yves Frenot was furious last week that French, Chinese and Australian ships in Antarctica were diverted from scientific work for the Shokalskiy rescue.
“There’s no reason to place Antarctica off-limits and to keep it just for scientists, but this tourism has to be monitored and regulated so that operators can be sure of getting help if need be,” he told reporters.
The headaches posed by Antarctic rescue operations were demonstrated when, after the Shokalskiy became mired in the ice on Dec. 24 last year, Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (雪龍, Snow Dragon) became trapped itself while trying to help.
The two ships only managed to free themselves on Tuesday, by which time yet another vessel, the US Coast Guard’s Polar Star, was steaming to their aid from Sydney, Australia.
Half of the 52 people rescued from the Shokalskiy were paying passengers and Frenot labeled the voyage a “pseudo-scientific expedition” — a charge denied by its Australian organizers.
The organizers said that their mission was to examine environmental changes by replicating measurements taken in the area a century ago by explorer Douglas Mawson.
Ligget said that the Shokalskiy had traveled into an area not normally frequented by tourist or scientific ships, which contributed to it becoming trapped and complicated its rescue.
She said that cruise ships approved by industry body, International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators usually travel in pairs, so they can rely on the “buddy system” if one experiences difficulties.
She said that the association has done a good job of minimizing the environmental impact of Antarctic tourism.
“It’s essentially the scenery, the wildlife and a relatively unspoiled environment that they’re selling to their tourists,” she said. “So it’s in their best interests to keep it that way.”
Association spokeswoman Amanda Lynnes said that tourist ships adopted strict decontamination measures to prevent travellers from taking non-native species or microbes ashore.
She added that ships carrying more than 500 passengers did not put tourists ashore, while those on smaller vessels who did land had to follow guidelines designed to protect flora and fauna.
In addition, ships must employ officers with Antarctic experience and have plans to contain any oil leaks.
Lynnes said that tourism can act as a driving force in conservation by giving people first-hand experience of the Antarctic.
“Visitors to Antarctica ... return home as ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship and the value of peaceful cooperation in this great wilderness,” she said.