Have we reached the tipping point for Antarctic travel?

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: Antarctica, Environment, My Last Continent, Oceans, Penguins

When My Last Continent was first published (hardcover in 2016 and paperback in 2017), I found myself answering a lot of questions about Antarctic tourism. Is it ethical to visit this fragile place? What sorts of harm are travelers doing to the environment? Are visitors hurting the penguins’ chance at survival?

My answer, six and seven years ago, was that travel was the least of the penguins’ problems. These incredible birds are being profoundly affected by climate change and overfishing; the best way to help penguins, I used to say, is to stop eating seafood (especially krill) and to fight for climate protections and marine protected areas. Back then, the number of visitors to Antarctica was not enough to harm penguins directly — especially when considering the emotional impact a visit to this beautiful continent can have. I like to think that most people who see penguins in the wild will begin to devote at least part of their lives to protecting them, whether it’s making changes to prevent global warming or to eat less seafood, or none.

But things have changed quite a lot in the last few years. When I went to Antarctica in 2004, there were about 20,000 tourists a year visiting the continent. By the time My Last Continent was published, that number had doubled. Now, the 2022-23 season expects to see more than 100,000 tourists in Antarctica. That is mind-boggling — and seems to be a sign we’ve reached the tipping point at which Antarctic travel can no longer be sustainable.

There are many reasons why 100,000 waterproof boots on the continent are too many: pollution in the Southern Ocean, possible disruptions to penguins’ breeding cycles, the introduction of foreign objects and viruses — and this article highlights something many of us may not even think of — the effects of marine noise for the underwater animals in Antarctica:

Most of the thousands of scientists and support staff who sail to continental Antarctica every summer smash into the Southern Ocean on ice-cutting hulls.
Their engines boom. Their machinery rumbles. Their propellers clatter and hiss from cavitating, collapsing bubbles.


The results of this noise “can cause immediate injury or even mortality” to such tiny animals as krill, which penguins and whales rely on for food. But underwater noise also causes stress to whales and other marine animals. The impacts of noise include “miscarriages; injury; disease; vulnerability to predation; changes in appetite; disrupted mother-calf bonds; panic; anxiety; and confusion.”

Of course, fishing boats also cause noise — and we need to limit their presence in the Southern Ocean as well — and scientific vessels are important and often necessary. But each of us can have an impact by considering why and how we travel. Given the animal lives at stake, is it really worth it?

Antarctica is among my favorite places on the planet, and I feel fortunate to have been able to travel there. But I would not make the same decision to travel to Antarctica as I did nearly twenty years ago. I’d like to see other humans discover the magic of this amazing continent — but the trouble is, the magic will be gone if we travel in numbers too great for the animals, and the environment, to handle.

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