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Environment

Is tourism putting Antarctic ecosystems at risk?

Antarctica is the last landmass on Earth that remains almost entirely undisturbed by human presence, except for a few scientific research stations. Is its wildlife at risk from a growing influx of cruise-ship tourists?

The Sixth Continent is home to penguins, whales, seals, and albatrosses, among other well-insulated creatures of the wild. These days, it's also host to pods of well-insulated red-breasted bipeds, an invasive species new to the region.

Marcel Lichtenstein is a natural historian, researcher and guide. Standing atop a rocky coastal cliff at Hannah Bay on Livingston Island, 100 kilometers off the coast of the West Antarctic mainland, the 42-year-old Costa Rican points to a cluster of grunting, groaning elephant seals. A bevy of people in bright-red parkas surrounds him, marveling at the massive sea mammals.

Antarctica is increasingly popular with tourists. Around 40,000 of them arrive each year, and spend quite a lot of money doing so. Antarctic cruises aren't cheap. But the numbers rise with each passing year.

"In our view, tourism should be viewed from two perspectives: On the one hand, we're happy that there's so much interest in exploring this region, and in seeing the scenery and its natural wonders," said Tim Packeiser, a Hamburg-based marine conservation expert with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

"But in recent years, tourism has increased a great deal. So, some questions come up: How are the trips organized, what rules are there for visitors?"

Dallmann Bay, Antarctica© S.Weniger/M.Marek

Whale-watching is one of the biggest attractions on Antarctic cruises. Cameras are out as soon as the giant beasts appear

Business with nature

Since the turn of the century, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has significantly tightened its requirements for visitors to the Antarctic.

IAATO's writ isn't entirely independent of state authorities, since the Antarctic Treaty System sets out a variety of agreements between powerful countries about what's allowed and what isn't, and the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, headquartered in Buenos Aires, looks after administration. Moreover, each country that's a signatory to the main treaty, the Antarctic Treaty, has an obligation to monitor the activities of its companies, agencies and nationals if they make trips to the Antarctic.

That said, IAATO, founded in 1991, has a key role in managing the way its tour-operator members behave on and around the frozen continent.

There are 160 approved landing sites on Antarctica, and since 2006, the only tour boats approved for landings are relatively small vessels with shallow drafts and a maximum of 200 passengers on board. Only 100 tourists are allowed on land at any one time. Ships with more than 500 passengers aren't allowed to make any landings at all anymore.

The regulations have become very precise and quite tough. At the moment, only 25 cruise ships are approved for landings with IAATO.

But in reality, "tourism isn't the main threat to the Antarctic," according to Rafael Sané, the expeditions leader on one of the cruise ships.

Sané, Lichtenstein and their colleagues are required to maintain precise log-books of every notable event during each Antarctic cruise: Has any animal been harmed by human presence? Has the penguin population declined? Which species of whale were sighted, and how many of them? Are glaciers changing or receding? Every detail is recorded in special IAATO log-books.

Port Charcot, Antarctica © S.Weniger/M.Marek

At the "iceberg graveyard" warming sea currents have carved some five thousand icebergs into fantastic shapes. Beautiful as they may be, they are sign that the ice is, slowly but surely, melting away

Much more dangerous than tourists

Sané sees much more serious risks than anything associated with tourism.

"The temptation to exploit Antarctica's mineral resources is a much bigger threat. Coal and other valuable raw materials under the mainland's 4,000 meter thick ice-sheet, oil and gas under the ocean floor - those are the great temptations. Tourism, given how closely regulated it is, is really quite sustainable."

Tourists and guides stroll amongst penguins and their chicks, which ignore the red-coated strangers. The animals of Antarctica know no fear of humans, having evolved in a world entirely free of dangerously clever, spear-carrying, two-legged mammalian hunter-gatherers.

During the ten days the cruise ship island-hops through the region, its passengers see no other sign of human beings, except one other cruise ship in the distance.

After a number of ship accidents, in 2011 the International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, declared the waters south of 60 degrees latitude closed to any ships propelled by cheap, dirty heavy bunker fuel.

The fuel releases enormous amounts of air pollution and CO2 into the atmosphere - which floats down onto the surface of the ocean, polluting Antarctic waters and snows. Instead, only ships that use light fuel oils are allowed in the region.

Gentoo penguins, Neko Harbour, Antarctica © S.Weniger/M.Marek

Gentoo penguins are among Antarctica’s most populous inhabitants. They have no natural fear of people – making them a great subject for tourist snaps

Loopholes in the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 specified that scientific research would be the only activity permitted on the Antarctic mainland. That has prevented, so far, the commercial exploitation of the Sixth Continent's land resources. Unfortunately, there is no comparable protection for the seas surrounding the land.

"The most serious threat, in our view, is commercial fishery," said marine conservation expert Tim Packeiser. "There are various threatened fish species, and large-scale krill harvesting is a threat to the entire ecosystem."

The small crustaceans are a fundamental link in the Southern Ocean food web; without krill, there would be no whales, seals, penguins, or seabirds.

Not long ago, there was an opportunity to declare the world's largest marine protected area in Antarctic waters, comprising 2.4 million square km in the Ross Sea and another 1.6 million square km bordering eastern Antarctica. The project failed.

Weddell Seal, Antarctica (c) Copyright: S. Weniger/M. Marek

A Weddell seal takes an afternoon nap on the Antarctic ice

Agreeing on this vast protected area had been the goal of a July 2013 conference in Bremerhaven, Germany, of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Two nations, Russia and Ukraine, torpedoed the deal. Both haul a lot of krill out of Antarctic waters, and don't want to stop doing so.

Marcel Lichtenstein remains optimistic. "All this here is so alien to us humans. Here, we aren't citizens of one or another nation. We're citizens of a planet. Here, one loses any nationality. And as long as no nation is willing to cede advantages to any other, there won't be any changes to the Antarctic status quo. And everything will stay as it is."

That's why in future, it will mostly be tourists and scientists, not miners or engineers, who carefully set foot on Antarctic's frozen land, and the continent's penguins and elephant seals will regard their strange land's human visitors the same as ever: with complete indifference.