Visiting the Wild Ice

By Ron Naveen

When I led Antarctic expeditions in the mid-1980s, there was a mere handful of tourist ships plying Antarctic waters and fewer than 2,000 visitors per season, but there was no uniform tourist guidance on which to rely. As best we could, those of us in leadership and staff positions used common sense, as well as our experience guiding folks in other sensitive locations, to ensure that our guests witnessed Antarctica’s beauty and grandeur in a safe and environmentally sound fashion. The informal watchwords were, simply: Leave things as you found them. Keep your distance. Let penguins be penguins. Don’t change the animals’ behavior.

For the most part, this approach worked because Antarctica is so awesomely breathtaking and because people are genuinely and sincerely disposed to “doing the right thing”. Nonetheless, there were occasional difficulties. I remember one unruly passenger who, despite admonitions, continued walking through throngs of nesting penguins. After consulting with the captain — truly, the master of all things on board, the captain took this wayward soul behind closed doors and read the riot act, threatening to keep him locked up for the remainder of the trip if his behavior didn’t change — which, happily, it did.

Such incidents were exceedingly rare, yet the desire remained to have something more official in hand, to add heft to the various do’s and don’ts we advocated. The good news is that things have changed — in a very positive fashion. Since 1994, Treaty Parties have fashioned both general and site-specific tourism guidance that will be continually reviewed, updated, and, if necessary, expanded. It is an evolution that has involved many in the Antarctic community.

On July 31, 1989, Oceanites proposed the first-ever Antarctic Traveler’s Code, suggesting, among other things, that visitors must not: leave footprints in fragile mosses; disturb the “personal space” of penguins, seals, and seabirds; interfere with protected areas; or dump garbage. There were further suggestions of minimum distances from animals and utilizing one guide or leader for every 20 passengers. The code was announced in the Oceanites newsletter, The Antarctic Century, and highlighted in the Sunday New York Times Travel Section on October 1, 1989.

In the succeeding, 1989-90 Antarctic tourism season, the Office Of Polar Programs of the US National Science Foundation began compiling annual data on numbers of visitors, which sites were being visited, and how often such sites were visited. For the first time, there would be regular updates on the most frequently visited sites and whether visitation patterns changed. In the 1989-90 season, 2,460 shipborne passengers visited Antarctica.

In 1991, Treaty Parties adopted the Protocol On Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which establishes tough environmental rules on everyone coming to Antarctica. 1991 also saw the formation of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which quickly adopted its own, industry-wide code to ensure proper visitor conduct (for example, allowing only one ship at a time at a landing site; limits on passengers ashore to no more than 100; requiring at least one guide for every 20 passengers on land; and landing prohibitions for ships exceeding a certain passenger capacity).

In the 1991-92 season, 7,103 Antarctic shipborne passengers were recorded and, prior to the 17th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in November 1992 in Venice, a special meeting was held to consider various possibilities for additional tourism management. But the special meeting proved inconclusive. Then, at the 18th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in April 1994 in Kyoto, Parties acknowledged the increase in tourism and the pending entry-into-force of the Antarctic Environmental Protocol by adopting Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic and Guidance for Those Organising and Conducting Tourism and Non-governmental Activities. Since then, this uniform and official guidance has been utilized by tour operators in pre-landing briefings to passengers.

In the 2004-05 season, 27,950 shipborne passengers visited Antarctica, 22,926 of whom made landings at visitor sites. At the 28th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in June 2005 in Stockholm, Parties adopted the concept of site-specific management guidelines, as well as a management plan covering visitor sites at Deception Island. At the 2006 Treaty meeting in Edinburgh, 11 site-specific guidelines were finally adopted.
Indeed, much has changed and there has been a positive evolution. Now, all who visit and work in Antarctica can rely on established guidelines to ensure that potential environmental impacts are kept to a minimum, if not avoided altogether.

And I remain optimistic, given the cooperative spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, that we will continue working together to ensure that this glorious venue remains the most emotionally stirring wilderness on our planet.

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA, 2d edition, 2005)