Tourism to the Antarctic is booming, but experts fear that the larger ships carrying passengers south are risking the lives of everyone on board.
Around 50,000 people visited Antarctica last austral summer – that is, summer for the southern hemisphere – about the same number as visit Disneyland each day, according to Camilla Nichol.
Ms Nichol, a geologist by training and the chief executive of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT), told Sky News: “Most tourism is concentrated on the Peninsula region, in an area about the size of the UK.”
She said that the majority visit the Antarctic Peninsula via a small cruise ship or a special expedition vessel, and although tourism is regulated and scrutinised it is also growing.
“While activity in Antarctica is tightly regulated, there are no numerical limits under the treaty,” she explained.
“We landed regularly and we went, you know, beneath the Antarctic Circle, so we went quite far south down the peninsula.
“You can’t do that with larger vessels. And of course, the other big difference is if you have a disaster in Antarctica, it has every, every, potential to become a disaster of unedifying proportions.
“If we hit an iceberg that was in total, 30 passengers and 30 crew, max, probably – let’s say 50 of us to worry about.
“I wouldn’t want it being one of those [cruise ships with 1,000 passengers] if it strikes an iceberg.”
The Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming place on the planet. Climate change is a huge risk factor to tourists. The landscape itself is changing and the warming means there are increasing numbers of icebergs which could crash into tourist vessels.
“Often channels are closed due to ice and passage is not possible. The need for ship captains to be highly experienced ice navigators and for expedition leaders to be highly skilled and experienced is essential,” said Ms Nichols.
“It is they who make the decisions on the safety of landings, and navigation. The visitors safety is in their hands, so their experience and qualifications need to be at the highest level.”
UKAHT, which is launching a cultural and educational programme about Antarctica called Antarctica In Sight, does offer tourists information about travelling to Port Lockroy in Antarctica.
Port Lockroy is one of Antarctica’s most visited sites, said Ms Nichol, adding that “around 18,000 visitors will land there each season between November and March” during the austral summer.
“They will experience the penguins’ colony, the first British science base – now a museum – and send 80,000 postcards from the post office between them,” she added.
They might even visit Vernadsky, the Ukrainian science station which was formerly a British base, which has a particularly unusual tradition: female visitors are offered a free drink of vodka if they care to leave their bra behind the bar.