Antarctic tourism to get safer, more environmentally friendly

The 20th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was held last month, with marine safety and the impact of travel on the Antarctic environment being the main topics of discussion. Attending members adopted measures that will hopefully ensure that travel to the region becomes safer, while also forming a working group to study ways to reduce the carbon footprint of tourism on the fragile ecosystem there.

Over the past couple of years there have been several high profile incidences involving Antarctic cruise ships, including the sinking of the MS Explorer back in 2007, and two ships running aground in December 2008 and again in February of this year. In response to these accidents, the IAATO passed a series of actions to enhance marine safety. The changes include mandatory participation in a satellite tracking program for all IAATO members, the conversion of all open lifeboats to partially or fully closed boats, and a new rule that stipulates that all ships sailing below 60º South have “a captain or appointed ice pilot with Antarctic experience.” The final new rule is in direct response to an investigation earlier this year that found that the inexperience of the captain directly played a role in the sinking of the Explorer. In the report that the IAATO released on the conference they indicated that G.A.P. Adventures, the company that held the charter for the Explorer, acknowedged the negative impact that the sinking of the ship had on the entire Antarctic tourism industry, and they encouraged the changes to restore confidence with travelers.The more than 100 IAATO members, from 14 countries, that attending the meeting also acknolwedged that global climate change was the greatest threat to the Antarctic continent, which led to the forming of the working group to explore more options for sustainable travel to the region. The new group intends to find ways to raise awareness of the threats to the frozen continent, as well as explore options for reducing the carbon footprint of travel to the area.

Personally, I think that the measures adopted are good steps for the Antarctic tourism industry. Clearly there are safety concerns, and it seems that operators have been playing with fire, especially since no one has been seriously hurt or died from the accidents that have occured there in the past few years. The changes are not likely to prevent further incidences however, but they may help to ensure that passengers continue to be safe and that they can be located more quickly by rescue crews, should the need arise.

The fact that that the IAATO is thinking about sustainable travel to Antarctica is encouraging as well, as it shows that they are moving towards becoming better stewards of the environment and ensuring that the continent remains in pristine condition for future adventure travelers to enjoy as well. It remains to be seen what kind of plans they put in place in this area however and how it’ll impact the industry as a whole.

Inexperinced Captain Blamed for Antarctic Cruise Ship Sinking

Back in November of 2007 a cruise ship, called the Explorer, owned and operated by GAP Adventures, a well known and respected adventure travel operator, went down in the Southern Ocean. Fortunately, none of the 154 people on board were killed, or even injured for that matter, and rescue ships were on the scene within hours. But many were left to wonder how such an accident could happen.

Eighteen months after the incident occurred, the Liberian Maritime Bureau has released its report, citing an “inexperienced and over confident” captain as the biggest reason the ship went down. According to this story in the U.K.’s Independent, investigators feel that if it weren’t for the unusually calm weather at the time, this could have easily become the worst disaster in Antarctic history.

The report also sheds more details on the accident, saying that the captain of the ship ran his vessel into what is described as a “wall of ice”, traveling at a high rate of speed, seriously misjudging the thickness of that ice. The collision tore a ten foot long cut in the hull of the vessel, much larger than was previously reported, sending it to the bottom of the ocean.
The captain of the Explorer is a Swede by the name of Bengt Wiman. It was not Wiman’s first trip into the Antarctic waters, as he had made the journey many times before as a first mate. This was, however, his first trip in command of his own ship, and that inexperience seems to have shown through. The report also cites him for manuvering in the icefield after dark as well.

Frequent Gadling contributor Jon Bowermaster has posted his thoughts on the subject in a blog post on his site. He was aboard one of the first rescue ships that came to the aid of the Explorer. Bowermaster tells us that ship itself was also part of the problem, as the Explorer was more than 40 years old, and had reportedly failed inspections on more than one occasion in the past. There are some indications that its hull integrity was compromised due to corrosion in several areas, which may have also led to the ship’s rapid demise.

The report underscores a growing sentiment that Antarctic tourism may be a disaster waiting to happen. There have long been concerns about the impact of tourism on the fragile environment there. But the sinking of the Explorer, along with two more ships running aground this year, has many concerned.