Is it the end of the line for Antarctic cruise ships?

Over the past decade, Antarctica has become an increasingly popular destination for adventure travelers with a penchant for visiting remote places that few others have the opportunity to see. To meet that demand, more and more ships have ventured into the frigid and treacherous waters along the Antarctic coasts, giving tourists a glimpse of the frozen continent, which had in the past seemed like a destination that was unapproachable for the average traveler. But those large cruise ships have raised concerns about potential threats to the fragile polar environment, and now there are measures being proposed that may prevent the vessels from venturing into those waters at all.

The International Maritime Organization has issued a ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils around Antarctica. Those fuels are the ones that pose the greatest threat to the environment should a spill occur, and they also happen to be the fuel that powers the larger ships in the region, which sometimes carry 500 passengers or more. The IMO ban is scheduled to go into effect next August, thus the upcoming season could be the final one for large cruise ships to sail those waters. The Antarctic season generally runs from November to February.

Several high profile cases in recent years have helped to spur this ban, including the sinking of the M/S Explorer , which hit an iceberg back in 2007, and two separate incidences of ships running aground last year. But intrepid travelers looking to visit the frozen continent shouldn’t panic. There will still be options to visit the Antarctic, albeit on much smaller ships. The trip may get a bit more expensive (as if it wasn’t already expensive enough!) however, with fewer options and operators to choose from.

[Photo credit: The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators]