Antarctic tourism drops in 2010

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) announced yesterday that the number of travelers visiting Antarctica actually dropped during the 2010-2011 tourism season – a trend that they expect to continue into the 2011-2012 season as well.

During the 2010-2011 Antarctic season, the total number of travelers on IAATO member-operated vessels was listed as 33,824, which is down 8.3% from last year, when 36,875 people visited the frozen continent or the waters off its shores. These figures represent the number of people who traveled through the region on small and medium sized expedition ships, and yachts, as well as large cruise ships. A little more than half of those visitors (18,534 to be exact) actually went ashore on the Antarctic continent itself, while the others merely cruised the Southern Ocean.

The 2011-2012 season looks to have even more significant drops in the number of visitors to Antarctica. This August a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils on ships traveling through the Southern Ocean will go into effect, preventing some of the larger cruise ships from entering those waters. That ban, which is being instituted by the International Maritime Organization, is designed to protect the fragile Antarctic environments, but it will also have an impact on the number of travelers who visit the area as well. The IAATO predicts that cruse-only passengers will drop from 14,737 in 2010 to less than 5000 this year. Factor in an economy that remains sluggish, and tourism in Antarctica is projected to drop an astounding 25% year-over-year.

The IAATO is an organization that is made up travel companies that operate in and around the Antarctic continent. The organization’s main goal is to support safe, sustainable tourism operations in that region. It’s more than 100 members have worked closely with one another to develop guidelines and standards that ensure their clients can travel in the Antarctic in a safe manner that is also environmentally responsible.

What does all of this mean for you and me? Expect fewer opportunities to cruise the Southern Ocean, at least in the near future, as the number of large cruise ships operating in the area is expected to drop to just five vessels. But it could also mean substantial discounts for trips to Antarctica as well, as tour operators scramble to fill cabins on their smaller ships in the season ahead. If you’ve ever wanted to go to Antarctica, this just may be the time to book that trip.

Swedish explorer hopes to go Pole2Pole in one year

Earlier this week, Swedish explorer Johan Ernst Nilson set out on an ambitious, 12-month long journey that will see him travel from the North Pole to the South Pole in a completely carbon neutral manner. The so called Pole2Pole will use skis, dogsleds, sailboats, and a bike to accomplish its goals.

This past Tuesday, Nilson was shuttled by helicopter to the North Pole, where he embarked on his epic journey that will see him traveling south for the next year. He’ll start by skiing across the frozen Arctic Ocean to Greenland, where he’ll use a dogsled that to carry him to Thule Airbase on the northwest side of the country. Once there, he’ll climb aboard a sailboat and cross the North Atlantic to Ottawa, Canada, where he’ll get on a bike and ride to Tierra del Fuego, Chile at the far end of South America. Once he has completed the cycling leg of the journey, he’ll get back in his sailboat and sail across the Southern Ocean for Antarctica, where he hopes to kite-ski to the South Pole, arriving before April 5th, 2012.

When he’s done, Nilson will have traveled nearly 23,000 miles, averaging roughly 63 miles per day, without using a single bit of fossil fuel himself. The same can’t be said about his support team and the documentary crew that will be following him around. They’ll be outfitted with cars from Audi, the major sponsor of the expedition. The auto manufacturer aided Nilson by helping to design and build a new lightweight sled that he’ll be using to pull his gear behind him while in the polar regions of the journey.

This is going to be one difficult journey to make in a single year, and traveling in the Antarctic after January is always a dicey proposition. Nilson has his work cut out for him for sure, but it will certainly be an amazing accomplishment if he can pull it off.

IAATO comments on missing Antarctic yacht

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) has released a statement regarding the Berserk, a Norwegian yacht that went missing in the Antarctic last week. While calling the incident “tragic,” the statement reiterates that the ship was not part of the organization, and was operating without regard to important safety guidelines.

The IAATO is a member-based organization that is focused on delivering safe and environmentally responsible options for travel to Antarctica. The association is made up of tour operators and travel companies who work together to ensure that sailing through the Southern Ocean is free from danger and available to all. Members are required to obtain all the necessary sailing permits from national authorities before they set out on their voyage, as well as provide an itinerary that offers details on what course they will be following as they travel throughout the region. The crew of the Berserk, did none of those things before setting out on their ill fated journey.

On Tuesday, February 22, the Berserk was sailing 18 nautical miles off the coast of Antarctica when it activated its emergency locator beacon. Massive storms were hitting the area at the time, and the high winds and rough waters prevented rescue operations from commencing for more than 24 hours. By the time search and rescue teams hit the area, the beacon was no longer transmitting and the yacht could not be reached by radio. It was believed that the ship had five passenger on board, but two of them were later found, alive and well, on the Antarctic continent, where they were embarking on a journey to the South Pole. The story took an ominous turn later in the week when an abandoned life raft was discovered adrift in the ocean, with no sign of passengers. Later, it was discovered that the Berserk was sailing without permits and without alerting any kind of national authority of their planned course.

Sailing in the Southern Ocean is a dangerous proposition, even in the best of times. The storms are powerful and massive icebergs lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to punch a hole through the hulls of passing ships. Because of these dangers, the IAATO released a set of guidelines for independent sailors on private ships passing through Antarctic waters. Sadly, had the crew of the Berserk heeded those guidelines, there is a better chance that they would be alive today.

To read the full statement from the IAATO, click here.

[Photo credit: IAATO]

Search for missing antarctic yacht officially called off

After nearly a week of searching, rescue teams have called off efforts to find a missing yacht that disappeared in Antarctic waters last week. The ship had three crew members on board at the time.

The Norwegian yacht Berserk was sailing in the Southern Ocean last Tuesday when the region was beset with bad storms. For unknown reasons, the crew activated the ship’s emergency locator beacon, calling for help. it was more than 24 hours before rescue operations could commence, and by that time the beacon was no longer transmitting and all attempts to hail the vessel were met with failure.

At the time, it was thought that the ship had five crew members aboard, but a day later two of the crew were found alive and well on the Antarctic continent itself. They included the ship’s skipper Jarle Andhoey, who was attempting to make a journey by ATV to the South Pole. Andhoey provided SAR teams with information on the the possible course that the ship was on when it went missing.

Further clues about the ship’s fate came a day later when a liferaft was discovered adrift in the sea. It was damaged and missing its first aid kit, but it was clearly from the Berserk. It could not be determined if the raft was set afloat on accident or if someone had used it to escape the ship.

The search continued throughout the weekend, but today New Zealand officials called off the operation, dismissing all ships committed to the mission. It seems that after a week, they are resigned to the fact that the Berserk is gone, and the three crew members on board went with her.

The story doesn’t end there however, as Andhoey is now due back in New Zealand, where he’ll have to provide answers about what the ship was doing in the Southern Ocean and what safety precautions had been taken. There are some indications that the crew ignored some important safety rules and that that may have contributed to ships demise.

Giant iceberg splits from Antarctica

A giant iceberg, the size of Luxembourg, has broken free from Antarctica and according to scientists could potentially play havoc with weather patterns across the globe for years to come. The massive chunk of ice, more than 985 square-miles in size, broke free from the Mertz Glacier Tongue along the eastern coast of Antarctica on February 12 or 13, and moved out into a region of the Southern Ocean that is vital to the production of cold, salty water that helps circulate important ocean currents.

The new iceberg was created when an older one, labeled as B9B amongst researchers, slammed into an ice shelf, dislodging it from the continent. B9B had broken away back in 1987, and drifted around the region, but had mostly sat dormant until recently. Now, the two pieces of ice have merged to form this one giant berg which could have long lasting implications to global climate.

The newly formed iceberg, which is over 48-miles in length, has already drifted out into a part of the ocean known as a polynya. Polynyas are an area of the Southern Ocean where dense, extremely cold and salty water is produced. That “bottom water”, as it is known, sinks deep into the sea and creates the circulation that moves the various ocean currents around the globe. If the iceberg stays where it is at right now, it could cause a change in those circulations, having an effect on ocean currents worldwide, which will also change jet stream patterns and the movement of weather.

Best case scenario, the iceberg will either move back into the Antarctic coast or drift north into warmer waters, where it won’t cause any problems, but scientists say that isn’t likely. The good news is that it will probably be decades before the effects of the iceberg will be known, and I’m sure by then global warming will have kicked in, and we’ll be happy for the cooling effect this might bring.