Rapid growth in the number of tourists visiting Antarctica aboard cruise and exploration vessels has produced an increasing number of incidents that have raised concerns about the environment and the safety of passengers.

In turn, calls to limit ship size and the numbers of visitors to the frozen continent have accelerated.

Earlier this month in Baltimore, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience meeting on the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty that the U.S. proposed limiting the size of cruise ships that call in Antarctica and the number of passengers that can land at one time.

"Strengthening environmental regulation is especially important as tourism to the Antarctic increases," Clinton said. "The United States is concerned about the safety of the tourists and the suitability of the ships that make the journey south."

The parties to the Antarctic Treaty agreed on the U.S. proposal to ban ships with more than 500 passengers from any landing sites and to restrict the number of passengers going ashore at any time to 100.

The new measures make binding, under international law, limits that are currently voluntary and were already developed and followed by members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).

The IAATO represents 100 operators in the region, including expedition lines such as Lindblad and Quark Expeditions, as well as companies with the largest ships that visit the area, such as Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.

Clinton's remarks joined a chorus of concerns about the safety of travel to Antarctica that has been rising along with the numbers of visitors to the region and a series of widely reported accidents involving cruise ships there, including the first sinking of a tourist vessel in Antarctic waters in 2007.

"We have also proposed new requirements for lifeboats on tourist ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes," Clinton added. "And we urge greater international cooperation to prevent discharges from these ships that will further degrade the environment around the Antarctic."

Growing concerns

In February, a Quark Expeditions ship, the Ocean Nova, was pushed aground in Antarctica by unusually high winds. All 64 passengers and 41 crew were safely evacuated to another Quark vessel, the Clipper Adventurer. The Ocean Nova was eventually freed from the rocks, and Quark reported that the incident had done no environmental damage.

ANT-FramGlacierBut for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), the incident, the second such grounding of a cruise ship in Antarctica this season and the sixth over the last four years, was not a surprise.

"This incident has striking similarities with recent incidents involving tourism cruise vessels in the Antarctic," ASOC said in a statement. "The area is frequently visited and relatively well known; the ship had been operating in the Antarctic Peninsula for several years, and the crew was experienced."

The most notorious of those incidents was the November 2007 sinking of the Explorer, a 100-passenger vessel operated by GAP Adventures. The vessel hit hard ice, puncturing its hull. All passengers and crew were evacuated and rescued by a Hurtigruten ship that was four hours away, but the Explorer went down (see report below).

Also in 2007, two Hurtigruten vessels experienced problems in the region. The Fram lost power for about 50 minutes and drifted into an iceberg, damaging one of its lifeboats, and the Nordkapp suffered minor damage to its outer hull after striking underwater rocks.

The Quark incident this year was the second such grounding of the season; an Argentine expedition cruise ship, the Ushuaia, ran aground, and its 89 passengers had to be evacuated by the Chilean navy.

According to ASOC, a few of these ships grounded due to weather, raising concerns about the potential risk to both humans and to the environment if this were to happen to a ship carrying hundreds of passengers.

"A vessel with just over 100 people aboard throws into stark relief the risks posed by the increasing numbers of vessels and by enormous vessels which have now begun to operate in the Antarctic, some of which carry more than 2,500 people," ASOC said.

ASOC said ships carrying more than 500 passengers represent the largest tourism increase of the past season. About 13,000 passengers visited the region this way in 2007-2008, up from 6,000 the previous season, on cruise ships such as Princess' 2,600-passenger Star Princess and HAL's 1,258-passenger Veendam.

These largest cruise ships do not disembark their passengers, but they do get close enough for passengers to see Antarctic land, observe penguins and encounter icebergs. That kind of growth concerns Antarctic preservation groups such as ASOC and members of the treaty, and the message the new regulations send to cruise lines is that these ships will never be able to land.

But ASOC's concerns go beyond landing. If these ships were to hit rocks or an iceberg, said James Barnes, executive director of ASOC, it would be difficult to rescue as many passengers as the ships carry, and also to prevent environmental damage from a possible leak of the heavy-grade oil that these ships either use or carry.

But the IAATO insists that because these ships stay farther out and tend to operate during the busiest times of the season, when there are more ships around, such concerns are unwarranted.

"If you look at the mission of the big ships and what they do, they stay well away from shore, and they don't attempt to do what the expedition ships do in any sense," said Steve Wellmeier, executive director of the IAATO. "This mitigates the risk to the point where I think a lot of these concerns can be answered. There is risk in any type of operation, even crossing the North Atlantic. There is no question in my mind that the North Atlantic is much more remote and poses a much more difficult search-and-rescue situation for a large cruise ship than would areas of the Antarctic Peninsula during January or February."

Barnes does not agree. He called the new limits a positive development, and he is pushing for further regulation of Antarctica tourism.

He also supports a ban on ships using or carrying heavy-grade fuel, a regulation that is expected to be adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Such a regulation would essentially ban large ships from sailing in Antarctica because although they would agree to use the lighter fuels in Antarctic waters, the ban would restrict them from carrying the heavy fuel as well.

Smaller expedition ships use light marine gas oil, which is less harmful than many other fuels and dissipates quickly in water, posing less environmental damage in the event of a leak.

As is the case with many tourism regulations, the IAATO said that the fuel ban would have a serious negative economic impact on the region.

"Without the lines' ability to add an Antarctic segment, they will likely cut back on overall circumnavigations of South America," Wellmeier said of the large cruise lines.

He said Holland America has already indicated that if the ban takes effect, it would likely reduce its South America cruises that now include Antarctica from five to one.

"Naturally, there would be an economic domino effect, affecting air flights to Buenos Aires, Santiago and Ushuaia, pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, transfers, shore excursions, restaurants and so forth," Wellmeier said. "Not to mention the loss of port fees and revenue to various local ship service companies and agents."

Wellmeier said CLIA was exploring ways to delay implementation of the amendment or provide "phase-in" mitigation measures, which would allow them more time to develop solutions to the ban.

No enforcement authority

The problem, Barnes said, is that without such IMO regulation, there are no real, binding rules.

"We don't have a system," Barnes said. "We have little pieces, but in a broad sense, nothing legally binding about the whole industry."

antarctica162x120Most tour operators follow the standards of the IAATO, which was founded in 1991 in the absence of a true regulatory agency.

The rules of the Antarctic Treaty are similar to the guidelines set by the IAATO, but since no claims to Antarctica are recognized by international law and the continent has no governing agency, there is no one who can actually enforce the treaty.

As a self-governing body, the IAATO's mission is to protect the Antarctic environment and promote sustainable tourism.

Since 1991, tourism to Antarctica, specifically cruise tourism, has proliferated, especially over the last decade.

According to ASOC, 46,000 people visited Antarctica in 2007-2008, with more than 30,000 of them stepping ashore. Ten years ago, 10,000 people landed on the continent and its outer islands.

Members of the association developed the restrictions, adhere to them voluntarily and support the proposal to make them mandatory.

Many of the companies that operate in Antarctica welcome the new regulations and any efforts to keep the environment pristine.

"An increasing number of large cruise ships have entered the region unprepared," said Sebastian Ahrens, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, which operates two 180-passenger expedition ships in Antarctica. "According to IAATO, these large ships are not permitted to land and allow passengers to disembark. However, there are no formal regulations in effect. ... We are all for changes to the current regulations if they are geared toward protecting and conserving Antarctica."

The Norwegian operator Hurtigruten also supports any rules that would regulate the growth of tourism in the region.

"We certainly do not support mass-tourism scenarios that seem to be taking place," said Jennifer Rosen, marketing director for Hurtigruten in the U.S. "It is a simple premise that we try to always follow: Leave nothing behind. If every company and individual followed that simple philosophy of removing whatever you brought in, many of the problems in nature these days would not exist."

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