Tourism poses threat to Antarctic wilderness

London, April 30:

Britain is to warn a summit on the Antarctic that soaring numbers of tourists flocking there on cruise ships could have serious environmental implications for the world’s last great wilderness.

Delegates at the annual Antarctic treaty meeting this week will call for tougher safety regulations. Experts say a fuel spill from a stricken vessel close to shore could cause significant pollution that would endanger the region’s wildlife and take years to clean up.

Close to 30,000 people are expected to descend on Antarctica to observe penguins, seals and seabirds this year - about four times as many as10 years ago. Adding in those who pass through without coming ashore brings the total to 37,000.

Tourists are increasingly gazing in awe at the icy landscapes not just in small former research vessels with space for up to 200 but from vast liners which spend just a few days in the waters of the Antarctic peninsula as part of longer voyages.

Earlier this year the 109,000-tonne Golden Princess became the biggest cruise ship to sail into the region, carrying 3,700 passengers and crew aboard a floating palace complete with five pools, a casino and a nine-hole putting green. Its sister ship the Star Princess is due to return next year, with 16-day trips costing up to GBP2,800 for the most luxuriousaccommodation. The two-week meeting of the signatories to the 1961 treaty that designated Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science comes in the wake of the first accident involving a tour boat in the region. The Norwegian MS Nordkapp ran aground at Deception Island in January, spilling a small amount of fuel. John Shears, of the British Antarctic Survey, who is the senior environmental adviser to the UK delegation to the treaty meeting, said that although no one was hurt and other ships were nearby to help, the incident was a “wake-up call”.

“The Nordkapp was very lucky,” Dr Shears said. “It was an ice-strengthened vessel with a crew who were experienced working in those conditions and only about 350 people on board.

“It used marine diesel fuel, which disperses in water quite quickly, but some bigger ships use heavy fuel oil, which can be very persistent and exceptionally difficult to clean up.” A spill of hundreds of tonnes of heavy fuel close to the shoreline could see thousands of penguins getting coated in oil, Dr Shears said. Clean-up equipment would have to be brought in from South America or the US, by which time the oil could have spread.

“It would be very, very difficult to clean the coast up and also todo something about the wildlife that had got coated in fuel. Nature isa great healer and will clean everything up over time, but because heavy fuel oil is so persistent it could be several years before the environment righted itself.” The British team also has wider concerns about the environmental impact of the bigger boats.