Learn about Antarctica's unique environment and how to minimise your impact on your Antarctic expedition
by Katie Birtles
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Renowned as the wild, final frontier, Antarctica has fascinated humans for years. In the last few decades, this fascination has induced tourism, with cruise ships and light aircraft descending on the continent. Despite the freezing, inhospitable conditions, visitors to Antarctica continue to rise.
In the early 1990s, Antarctica saw around 5,000 tourists each year. During the 2017-2018 season, 51,707 tourists visited Antarctica.
As temperatures heat up, the ice melts and three trillion tons of ice have already disappeared in the last 25 years. The ice loss has also sharply accelerated in the past five years - it was once estimated to be about 50 metres per year, however the loss is now more than 20 times that rate, at about one kilometre per year.
These alarming changes have set off a harmful chain of effects through the Antarctic wildlife. Animal habitats and breeding grounds vanish along with the ice, while krill populations have greatly declined due to rising sea temperatures.
This threatens many animals from penguins and leopard seals to whales, who depend on krill as a food source. Many penguin species are already declining, while the albatross is facing extinction.
Although Antarctica is a fierce, indomitable land, it’s also a fragile ecosystem. This pristine wilderness must be protected - but who is responsible? As the only continent without a government, Antarctica is the shared responsibility of several nations.
The Antarctic Treaty
After many countries attempted to claim territory on Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty was put forward to stop the threat of conflict.
Signed in 1959, the Treaty entered into force in 1961 and currently has 53 parties. All Treaty members agree that no territorial sovereignty claims will be recognised, and that the preservation of Antarctica is a collaborative effort.
The Treaty established Antarctica as a region of peace and science. It prohibits military and mining activities (including whaling which reached a destructive peak in the mid-1800s), nuclear explosions and disposal of radioactive wastes. The area must only be used for scientific research and and peaceful purposes, including limited tourism.
The continent is wholly protected as a natural reserve. The Treaty Protocol on Environmental Protection sets out obligations and procedures to minimise any negative impacts on the Antarctic environment.
Guidelines for Antarctic visitors
All visitors to Antarctica are bound by the Treaty and the Protocol and must comply with environmental regulations. We’ve listed the Treaty’s guidelines below and you can read the full visitor guidelines here.
Protect Antarctic flora and fauna
Visitors must never disturb the Antarctic wildlife. You cannot touch, feed or do anything to alter the behaviour of animals. Keep noise to a minimum and avoid flash photography. If you keep still and quiet, animals may approach you, however you must never interfere with them.
Avoid damaging the unique plant-life. You’ll come across unique moss, lichen and herbs which can take decades to grow, so don’t damage or step on them.
Respect protected areas
Some areas in the Antarctic are specially protected due to their ecological, scientific or historical significance and entry to these areas may be restricted or prohibited. You must never damage, disturb or remove any monuments, artifacts or equipment from any sites.
The Antarctic environment is unpredictable and unforgiving. The severe, changeable weather can be highly dangerous and the glaciers and snow fields are strewn with hidden crevasses.
Always follow instructions from your guides and never leave your group. You cannot always expect a rescue service so it’s imperative to follow all safety instructions.
Keep Antarctica pristine
Antarctica is one of the few unspoiled parts of the earth and remains undisturbed by large human developments. It goes without saying that we need to keep it this way.
Visitors cannot take anything or leave anything behind. You must never dispose of garbage on land, never graffiti or vandalise any sites and never take away any souvenirs such as rocks, plants, fossils or parts of buildings.
It’s also crucial to respect smoking restrictions. Besides the harmful pollutants, smoking is also a major fire hazard in the dry environment of Antarctica.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO)
As visitors numbers began to rise, the need to manage and mitigate the effects of tourism became crucial. In 1991, the IAATO was created to promote safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica.
The IAATO works with the Antarctic Treaty to enforce strict codes of conduct on Antarctic tour operators. The organisation currently has more than 100 voluntary members who follow extensive procedures and regulations to ensure safe, respectful and sustainable tourism in the Antarctic.
Member operators must always notify the IAATO in advance of their activities in Antarctica and IAATO registered tours are limited to no more than 500 passengers on their ships. Only 100 people are allowed ashore at any time and all tourists must be supervised by a regulated ratio of guides.
Everyone must undergo rigorous decontamination procedures before stepping on land. Boats, shoes (you’ll be provided with special boots), clothing and equipment must be vacuumed and disinfected to avoid the introduction of new species to the delicate Antarctic ecosystems.
You may not think you are carrying anything on you, but it’s very easy for seeds, plants or bacteria to become lodged in your clothing and equipment.
Your expert expedition crew will explain all the rules and procedures, right down to what to do when you need to use the bathroom on land (you’ll be escorted back to the ship).
The crew will be on hand throughout your journey to ensure your safety and answer all your questions. With daily presentations and spectacular shore excursions, you’ll be infected by their passion for preserving the Antarctic environment.
Should we travel to Antarctica?
There is debate over whether tourism should be allowed in Antarctica at all. Although tourist activities are highly regulated, all expeditions have some impact on the environment.
The fuel-guzzling flights and ships also contribute to carbon emissions and climate change, which is ultimately destroying Antarctica’s precious environment.
Does that mean that all travel is environmentally unethical?
Not exactly. Responsible tourism offers a valuable contribution to community development and conservation, which can compensate for the negative environmental impacts of travel. However, with no permanent population or culture, this does not apply to Antarctica.
So how can we justify tourism in Antarctica?
An expedition to the earth’s final wilderness is a monumental and often life-changing experience. It's also a privilege that comes with a responsibility to our environment.
After witnessing the breathtaking scenery, awe-inspiring wildlife, and the devastating effects of climate change, many people gain a deeper appreciation for our planet. They recognise the urgent need to protect our environment and many are moved to make changes in their life.
Wayfairer works solely with IAATO registered tour operators who are strongly committed to the preservation of the Antarctic region. All of our partner operators aim to instill a widened understanding of the region and to inspire you to become an environmental advocate for Antarctica.
We hope that all travellers will share their knowledge and experiences when they return home and continue to act as ambassadors for Antarctica.
Furthermore, our partner operators donate profits to fund invaluable scientific research in Antarctica and also contribute to environmental charities who raise climate change awareness.
On an individual level, you can work to offset the carbon emissions of your travel by making changes at home. Every action helps from choosing Fairtrade coffee and locally-grown produce, to switching to solar energy and an electric vehicle.
Whether you’re travelling to Antarctica to fulfill a dream of seeing the glaciers and penguins of the far south, or you simply want to tick the seventh continent off your bucket list, we should all make a conscious effort to travel deeper.
If you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, we hope this guide will help you to travel in a responsible and sustainable manner. Contact our Luxury Travel Specialists to chat about your ideas and start planning your dream Antarctica holiday.