Saturday, December 8, 2007

Antarctic Tourism

A recent post by Amy Hooper at WildBird on the Fly asks the question about birders rethinking a trip to Antarctica because of the recent oil spill resulting from the sinking of the Explorer. She apparently got most of her information about the area from an online newspaper article she referenced in her post. It appears that there were some translation problems in the article, which talks about Antarctic, Adelie, and Papuan Penguins. These names reflect the scientific names of the three Pygoscelid penguins nesting in the area, the Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica), the Adelie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), and the Gentoo Penguin, (Pygoscelis papua). I also have to quibble a bit about a statement from the director of the scientific department of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, Veronica Vallejos, who claims the area has high biodiversity. Actually the biodiversity is fairly low (few species) but the biomass in quite high (lots of what species are there).

Although there may very well be impacts to this species from the sinking of this ship and any oil spills are a danger to animals living in the area, this also needs to be viewed in perspective. There are many other oil spills in the world right now (South Korea, San Francisco) where the environmental impacts to seabirds are going to be much greater because of the type of oil involved. The spill from the Explorer should disperse fairly fast because the type of fuel used in this ship and the depth at which it apparently sank. The following is a quote from a IATO press release concerning the Explorer:

In terms of environmental implications, the vessel uses MGO (Marine Gas Oil)
fuel, and as the incident occurred in open water with an estimated depth of
500m, it is expected that any fuel seepage will disperse promptly with no
adverse effects on the environment. There is concern regarding lube oil,
plastics and other pollutants. It was estimated that 190 cbm of MGO was in the
fuel tanks at the time the incident occurred.
The request for IAATO vessels passing the area 62º 23’ 32" S, 57º 16’ 09" W to monitor, report and collect any marine debris, flotsam or pollution, and to monitor and report landing sites for any debris or indication of pollution has been circulated to all vessels and companies, and remains in place for the duration of the season

Although this statement may be a bit rosy in it's assessment that there will be no adverse effects on the environment it provides good information on the type of fuel involved and the impact assessment may be accurate considering the following:

This is not the first tour ship that has sunk in Antarctica. In 1989 the Argentine ship, Bahia Paraiso sank about 2 miles from Palmer Station. Like the Explorer, none of the passengers or crew were injured or died when the Bahia sank although Palmer Station had an additional 202 people for dinner that night. Ironically, the Explorer was one of the vessels in the area that wound up taking the Bahia passengers north to Ushuaia. The ship sank in shallow water near the station and the bottom of the ship is quite visible, especially early in the spring when the water is clear. It is an eerie sight to see a ship laying upside down on the bottom of the ocean like that. Approximately 600,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled during this event (approximately 190,000 litres spilled from the Explorer) and continued to leak from the wreckage. The impacts were mostly confined to limpets, intertidal mollusks, and the Kelp Gulls that feed primarily on limpets, despite the close proximity of Adelie Penguin colonies to the ship. In 1992, remaining fuel on the ship was removed by a joint Dutch and Argentine crew. See here for more information.

Much of the argument from here out will center on whether or not the benefits of tourism in Antarctica outweigh the potential risks to the environment from the tourism. I believe that the benefits do outweigh the risks. I have witnessed awareness of the issues affecting Antarctica bloom in people who might never have thought of this place other than as the last continent they needed to get to. A lot of that has to do with the company I work for but it is also due to all tour operators working together to minimize their environmental impact (IAATO). When a place ceases to be important to people it becomes expendable and this is a place that needs to continue to be important for many reasons. Go, see it if you can, but if not appreciate it for what it is and what it can continue to be; a place for learning and keeping wild. Warming in this part of the world impacts many more penguins than this spill will and the more people that are exposed to the realities of the warming in Antarctica by visiting this place despite the risks, the better off we will be. Also see Patrick Burns here for an additional and very valid view on not only global warming but other environmental problems.

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