There are not so many ways to go to Antarctica: as a scientist, as a tourist, or as a guide. This time, I went as a guide onboard an “expedition cruise” ship. Most of all, this experience gave me the opportunity to make my own idea about tourism in Antarctica.
South Georgia, the Falklands, the Antarctic Peninsula … to many of us, just hearing the sound of these words is enough to freeze and start day-dreaming. Beyond the Roaring 50s, here is a world of the wildest beauty. Gigantic mountains covered in thick glaciers plunge deep into the waters where three oceans meet. On some endless beaches, hundreds of thousands of penguins compete with seals for some space to breed or molt. On the open seas, giant albatrosses glide, effortlessly, stroking from time to time the tip of their wings against the waves, surfing from one ridge to another. Whales come to feed on krill, krill thrives and seabirds follow just behind, as numerous as stars in a moonless night.
But as far and hostile the place can be, humans have also been coming here for a long time to plunder its resources. The whaling industry has brought many species close to extinction before all the whales got officially protected in the 80s. The whale station of Grytviken is a great testimony of that wild time. Overfishing is now a serious issue, especially for the austral toothfish and the krill, at the base of the whole food web. Besides, the number of tourists landing in Antarctica has gone from about 6,600 in 1992 to 37,000 in 2010.
But there are also reasons to believe in a better management of the Antarctic resources, thanks to the Antartic Treaty dedicating the continent to peace and science, or the efforts of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) who deals with tourism activity. However, a much more complicated is global warming, and all the ongoing conservation programs prove powerless against its effects.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington in 1959 by the twelve countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58. The total number of Parties to the Treaty is now 47. Only in 1991 was signed the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and it entered into force in 1998. Activities are subject to regulations concerning environmental impact assessments, protection of fauna and flora, waste management and others. All activities relating to Antarctic mineral resources, except for scientific purposes, are forbidden. As it is often quoted, the Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” … until 2048. The only land on Earth not being owned by any country is also one of the most coveted for its natural resources. 2048 will probably be the hottest year ever in the Antarctic history.