Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cruise Weekly: Antarctica: Putting the adventure in adventure cruising

As a drama-filled Antarctic season draws to a close, some operators will be counting the cost.

A&K reluctantly cancelled one chartered sailing of the French-flagged Le Boreal after an unspecified mechanical issue, while Travel Dynamics International was forced to cancel the December 8 sailing for Clelia II after a freak wave smashed a bridge window. Clelia II, soon to be Orion II, also damaged a propeller last year. The YouTube video shot from the shadowing National Geographic Explorer was unnerving to say the least.
Unsettling video of Clelia II making hard
work of a Drake Passage Crossing

But more excitement was yet to come. The Polar Star, carrying several Australian passengers, stuck an uncharted rock and ruptured the outer hull ultimately forcing the evacuation of the ship and the cancellation of the balance of their season. Fortunately there were no serious injuries in any of these incidents and, perhaps just as importantly, there was no oil spilled.

Every year sees another grounding or ‘incident’ and, as we discussed in this column six months ago, cruise numbers will decrease next season as the large, heavy-oiled vessels withdraw from the region. In 1992, 12 vessels conducted expeditions to Antarctica, while last season it had grown to 51 after having peaked at 55 in 2007/08. Still, the vast majority of travellers are Americans (30+%) which accounts for the trailing off of landing passengers since 2008; down to less than 20,000 from a 2007/08 peak of over 30,000.

So as operators, passengers and regulators take stock of this eventful season, how will polar tourism proceed? Will the much talked about principles of promoting environmental and socially responsible travel fall by the wayside as travellers continue their rush to the diminishing ice?

Passengers abandon the sinking
Explorer in 2007 (Michael Nolan)
Ironically, just as the disaster flick ‘Titanic’ stimulated interest in cruising, so too did the 2007 sinking of the Explorer. Anecdotal evidence suggests the massive global coverage of the event caused an inquiry spike for Antarctic cruises about this time. Disasters don’t dissuade travellers it seems, merely financial confidence.

“More and more cruise lines have added Antarctica to their itineraries. And many tour operators, accustomed to voyaging in ‘tamer’ waters, are leasing adventure ships to offer Antarctic voyages, too. Given the increasing numbers of reported ship mishaps in Antarctic waters, it is not hard to conclude too many guests and operators alike may be undertaking this too lightly.” - Lindblad Expeditions

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) with 99 members, attempts to govern tourism in Antarctica with a voluntary code limiting passenger numbers during landings in a place without police, a Coast Guard or government. It’s administered largely by goodwill; a commodity usually rated a distant second to commercial imperative.

"You can't actually stop people from going there," Denise Landau, the IAATO's Colorado-based executive director, told National Geographic Magazine in 2007, "All you can do is manage what you've got, and that's what we're trying to do."

Currently the major authority is the International Maritime Organization (IMO) who governs safety and ship standards. Their recent enforcement of upgraded fire protection standards have seen some older vessels fall out of the expedition fleet. But ultimately it will be us, the travelling public who enforce environmental standards on the operators by choosing to travel, or not. And the more of us who travel, the greater will be our number of advocates and ambassadors for Antarctic protection.