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Antarctica - extreme environmental tourism

Antarctic tourism

Antarctic Sea Ice Reaches New Record Maximum


After the Heroic Age (1918-1940)

After the Scott–Amundsen saga, there were no further journeys to the South Pole until the 1950s. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914) floundered due to his ship Endurance being trapped in the icy waters of the Weddell Sea. Considered to be the last expedition of the Heroic Age, it was notable for its feats of ‘endurance’ rather than the planned trans-continental trek. Beset by ice in the Weddell Sea, Shackleton and his party of 28 men were stranded on the pack ice in the winter season of 1915. Their ship sunk after being crushed by the ice, and the men had to endure the Antarctic winter in a series of makeshift camps, surviving on remaining food stores and captured animals. Shackleton took a decision to use the lifeboats in order to journey to Elephant Island to the north of the Weddell Sea. He left the bulk of the expedition there and, together with his five companions, sailed 800 nautical miles in an open boat (the James Baird) to South Georgia. Once there, they clambered over the mountains and reached a Norwegian whaling community. The remaining men were eventually rescued, without any loss of life. This remains one of the ‘greatest escapes’ from the Antarctic.

European- and North American-sponsored Antarctic exploration, after the hiatus caused by the First World War, resumed with new interventions in ship-based, and more notably air-based, discovery. For others such as Argentina, their personnel continued to occupy a research station in the South Shetlands, and had done so continuously since 1904 after being bequeathed the base by the Scots explorer William Bruce. By way of contrast, the British invented a ‘Discovery Committee’ to explicitly strengthen imperial control over the Antarctic via polar science.

Established in 1923, as a result of a recommendation by the Departmental Committee on Research and Development for the Falkland Islands Dependencies (FID), the committee was charged with two inter-related tasks. First, to provide accurate and up-to-date maps and charts of the FID; and second, to assist the whaling industry with the collection of information regarding stock size and meteorology so that it could manage whaling rather than being primarily an aid to the whalers themselves. Given that whaling licenses were an invaluable source of income to the FID, it was in the interest of the British government as well as the industry to ensure its longer-term sustainability. The net result was to encourage a series of survey voyages designed to study the oceanography of the Southern Ocean. During this period, the polar continent was circumnavigated, and extensive mapping was carried out around the scattered islands of South Georgia, the South Orkneys, and the South Shetlands. This was Britain’s ‘South Atlantic Empire’.

At the same time as the British authorities were generating information about British Antarctic waters and their major inhabitant, the whale, there was also a co-ordinate, if modestly funded, push to consolidate geographical discovery in other parts of the imperial Antarctic. Science, exploration, and empire were again being brought together to invoke, on the one hand, imperial authority and, on the other hand, a form of ‘environmental authority’, which entailed British administrators managing the marine life of the Southern Ocean for the benefit of humankind.

Flying over the Antarctic

While ships and sledges dominated the first hundred years of Antarctic exploration and discovery, the introduction of the aero plane (and later the helicopter) was significant. The flight path began to supplement the sledge track. In November 1928, the Australian aviator Hubert Wilkins introduced the aircraft into Antarctic Peninsula exploration. Armed with a newspaper deal from William Randolph Hearst, Wilkins took a Lockheed Vega monoplane equipped with pontoons to the Antarctic, and created an improvised landing strip at Deception Island. On 20 December 1928, Wilkins flew for 11 hours across the Antarctic Peninsula, covering some 1,600 miles and travelling below 71°S. Recalling his land-based struggles as a young polar explorer, he reveled in what the plane offered: ‘I had a tremendous feeling of power and freedom – I felt liberated. For the first time in history, new land was being discovered from the air.’

Within five years, planes and pilots were being deployed in other expeditions involving Douglas Mawson and the Norwegian Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who each laid the groundwork for their respective national territorial claims. The American explorer Lincoln Ellsworth made multiple expeditions between 1933 and 1939, including the first flight across the Antarctic. A contemporary of his, Admiral Richard Byrd, played his part in utilizing the aircraft to considerable effect with regard to exploration.

Byrd, after establishing a base (Little America) at the Bay of Whales in January 1929, used his Ford tri-motor aircraft, the Floyd Bennett, to undertake the first ever flight to the South Pole. In November 1929, the pilot and passengers reached the spot where Amundsen and Scott had visited nearly 20 years earlier. As Byrd noted, ‘There was nothing now to mark that scene; only a white desolation and solitude disturbed by the sound of our engines.’ With favorable flying weather, the plane could conduct extensive reconnaissance flights, and explore vast swathes of previously unsighted territory.

It could and did eclipse the achievements of land-based expeditions, and a new generation of polar explorers were being fêted for their aeronautical endurance as opposed their handling of snow and dogs. The Antarctic map was transformed again, as new geographical features were identified from the air, and subsequently named after explorers and sponsors alike.

The British Graham Land Expedition (1934-1937), under the leadership of John Rymill, used aircraft to help demonstrate that the Antarctic Peninsula was physically connected to the rest of the polar continent. Using a De Havilland Fox Moth reconnaissance plane, equipped with floats and skis, the team explored the southern Antarctic Peninsula region, which was poorly mapped and barely visited in comparison to the northern tip. Twenty years later, the British government invested in the aerial mapping of the Peninsula region via the Falkland Islands Dependencies Aerial Survey Expedition (FIDASE, 1955-1957), which was carried out by the Hunting Aero surveys. Canso planes, imported from Arctic Canada, were used to continue the mapping and surveying of British Antarctic territories, and helicopters played a critical role in ferrying surveyors around the targeted areas.

The impact of the aero plane in terms of Antarctic exploration was mixed. On the one hand, the plane and the pilot became a powerful expression of the modern age of exploration. Unlike the foot-slogging Edwardian explorer, the pilot could soar over the polar interior and coastline, sighting thousands of square miles of territory. The plane was an instrument of geopolitical power. British, American, and German pilots played their part in projecting the ambitions of their sponsoring states, even aiding and abetting the aerial colonization of the Antarctic by throwing flags out of the aero plane window. And if German forces had prevailed during the Second World War, then perhaps the aerial exploits of the Neu-Schwabenland expedition would have been more strongly commemorated on the Antarctic map.

On the other hand, flights could be disrupted by bad weather, poor landing options, and costly operation. The FIDASE remains a case in point, as a project beset with difficulties regarding cloud cover, fog, mist, freezing instruments, and gusting winds. Pilots and their planes were frequently grounded during the short summer season, and at least one helicopter was lost due to violent downdrafts. So flying and hovering were no panacea, and any mapping that was going to emerge in the aftermath needed reliable ground control. The plane and the pilot did not replace the land-based explorer and surveyor, all remaining dependent on ship-based support because the distances to be covered were still immense, and search-and-rescue facilities were non-existent.

Mega-discovery and permanent occupation (1940-1958) The Second World War created an exploratory impasse. Yet, even in the midst of the war, Argentine and British parties were exploring, mapping, and claiming Antarctic territories. In the post-1945 period, one dominant trend in Antarctic exploration was scale and permanency. New investment, provoked in part by explicit geopolitical agendas, led to a tranche of research stations and huts being established across the polar continent. The role of the armed forces was also notable. The Argentine and US navies were active in the logistical support of expeditions and the establishment of permanent infrastructure in the Antarctic; although in the case of Argentina, this was merely reinforcing their established permanent presence, dating from 1904. As in earlier times, hybrid expeditions, such as the one led by the American explorer Finn Ronne, carried out extensive aerial reconnaissance of the Ross Dependency, Australian Antarctic Territory, Dronning Maud Land, and Marie Byrd Land at the same time as the US Navy was completing naval operations High Jump and Wind Mill. Expeditions were, in this period, ambitious in scope and scale - 4,000 men and 12 gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized. The second noticeable trend was cooperation. While there was geopolitical competition in the disputed Antarctic Peninsula involving rival claimants Argentina, Chile, and the UK, there was also collaboration. In 1949, the Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition (NBSX) introduced the world to the first multi-national example of such cooperation in the Antarctic. For two seasons, the parties attached to the NBSX carried out air surveys of Dronning Maud Land and significant glaciological research on the Antarctic’s ice sheets. Following in the footsteps of that venture was the private Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1955–8) led by Vivian Fuchs, and the conqueror of Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, involving Australian, British, New Zealand, and South African personnel. Billed as a Commonwealth enterprise combining exploration with serious science, the team used motorized tractors to cross the Antarctic continent and thus complete a journey planned by British explorers some 40 years earlier. Unfortunately for the organizers, notwithstanding the successful completion of the crossing in March 1958, the expedition is remembered as much for the public falling out between Fuchs and Hillary over the nature of the crossing. A regrettable ending to a journey encompassing 2,180 miles and completed within 99 days.

Collaboration and cooperation were here to stay in the context of Antarctic exploration and investigation. During the International Geophysical Year (IGY), the Americans and New Zealanders jointly administered Hallett station. The United States also worked with Argentina and Australia, two large claimant states, in manning Wilkes and Ellsworth stations, respectively. Results were shared more readily within and beyond the scientific community, and all IGY parties accepted, albeit sometimes grudgingly, that the Antarctic was now a place of shared endeavor and enterprise. The third trend was visualization. Ever since the earliest explorers, the Antarctic had been recorded in a variety of ways, especially by photography and film-making in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Aerial photos were, in the period between the 1930s and 1950s, vital to expeditions as proof that the polar continent and surrounding ocean were being explored, mapped, and potentially administered. Getting the photographs published and publicized was a priority for publicly and privately funded expeditions alike. Expedition leaders were expected to write articles, books, and newspaper stories highlighting their achievements to domestic and international audiences. Until somewhat eclipsed by space exploration, the Antarctic was as remote as the Moon for most people, barely visited and barely understood.

The final trend worth noting is the Cold War itself. Exploration and discovery became increasingly politicized in the 1940s and 1950s, especially when the Soviet Union resumed its interest in the Antarctic. The claimant states, including the United Kingdom and the largest of the group of seven, Australia, had to come to terms with the fact that previous episodes of exploration and discovery did not guarantee claims to ownership. The decision of the Soviet Union to re-activate its Antarctic interests in the run-up to the IGY effectively ensured the unsettling of the territorial status quo. In January 1958, recognizing that the Soviet Union gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized.

Gendering discovery (c. 18th century onwards)

Thus far, all the acts of discovery carried out in the Antarctic were by men, and in the main, men from the Euro-American world. In her delightful short story Sur, the American writer Ursula Le Guin constructs a counter-factual history of Antarctica. She posits the idea that the South Pole was actually discovered by a group of South American grandmothers who arrive some months before any male explorers, including Amundsen and Scott. Their voyage is not premised on conquest, national prestige, and/or a race to some geographical point. In so doing, she reminds us that the histories of Antarctic discovery and exploration are gendered, racialized, nationalized, and civilized. The Antarctic performs as a kind of fantasy space for white European men, in particular, to perform ‘firsts’ and record their ‘achievements’ in the name of national and individual power. In The Left Hand of Darkness, involving a black man and an androgynous extra-terrestrial pulling Scott’s sledge across a planet called ‘winter’, Le Guin asks us to mull over what difference it might make to the history of polar exploration if the protagonists were not assumed to be white, male, and, almost certainly, heterosexual.

Women were not encouraged for a variety of reasons, including a perceived lack of physical endurance. Expedition leaders and their managers also expressed concern that women might unsettle the routine of base life and expect separate sleeping and toilet facilities. The routine and rhythm of the intensely homo-social life of the Antarctic base faced a gendered assault. The first woman, Caroline Mikkelsen, did not set foot on the Antarctic until February 1935, and only did so because she was the partner of a Norwegian captain in command of a whaling vessel. The first women to winter over in the Antarctic were Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington who spent a year (1947-1948) in the Antarctic Peninsula with their husbands, as part of the privately organized Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. In October 1957, two Pan-American Airlines flight attendants, Patricia Hepinstall and Ruth Kelly, working on a commercial flight over the Antarctic, landed at McMurdo Base. In 1960-1961, the accomplished Australian artist Nel Law accompanied her husband Philip Law to Antarctica. The opportunities for women to discover the Antarctic were limited, however, and would remain so for decades.

When Ernest Shackleton was asked about the possible participation of women, he replied that there were ‘no vacancies for the opposite sex on the Expedition’. His view was in no way unique or unusual. If there was an accompanying ideology to polar exploration, it was informed as much by gender as it was by geopolitics, science, and empire. While men may have performed gendered tasks such as cleaning and cooking within research stations and huts, they did so safe in the knowledge that everyone took their turns away from the gaze of any women – thus avoiding emasculation of sorts. And only the British, as far as I know, relished a cross-dressing party during the winter solstice – having female colleagues watching would, I suspect, have made said participants look a little silly. By way of contrast, Norwegian expeditions had designated cooks, and did not pack women’s clothing in their knaps acts of exploration and discoveries government attacks. Or so I have been told.

Nonetheless, women performed a variety of roles in the context of the Antarctic. While they have been physically absent from the discovery process, their presence was invoked when men were planting flags, issuing proclamations, constructing bases, and carrying out exploratory activities (claimant labour, in other words). Vast tracts of land were named after women – Marie Byrd Land, Queen Mary Land, and Mount Caroline Mikkelsen. These names were submitted and approved by all-male bodies such as the US Board on Geographic Names. Women worked for government departments and organizations responsible for exploration and discovery, and later scientific programmes. In February 1999, I had the pleasure of meeting Dame Margaret Anstee, who started her career in the late 1940s in the Foreign Office working for the chief polar advisor, Dr Brian Roberts. Dame Margaret finally got to visit the Antarctic some 50 years later as a passenger on a cruise ship, after being told by her employer the Foreign Office that she was not allowed to go. More recently, Argentina and Chile have flown pregnant women down to their bases in order to strengthen their genealogical connections to the polar continent.

Scientifically, women began to make their presence felt from the 1950s onwards after overcoming prejudice and sexism within both civilian and military organizations. Women had to overcome sexist assumptions about their ability to cope with the ice, base life, and the last male bastion – the overwintering period. But progress was slow. In 1956, a Russian marine biologist, Maria Klenova, worked in the summer station of Mirny, and, a decade later, the US finally allowed women to participate in their national programme. Women finally reached the South Pole in 1969, some fifty-odd years after men, and in the year when other men were landing on the Moon. In the 1970s, another first was achieved, this time involving the first women scientists to winter over, as part of the American Antarctic programme. It was not until the early 1990s, by way of contrast, that the British Antarctic Survey allowed women to over-winter at their stations.

The role of women in the history of Antarctic discovery remains ambivalent. On the one hand, men have dominated the Antarctic’s occupation and settlement as well as exploration. Women have frequently had to battle against gendered assumptions about their suitability. On the other hand, women have been used symbolically and physically to explore, colonize, and settle the Antarctic. Women and their Antarctic children have been used for geopolitical purposes to cement national claims to territory. Both men and women, in their different ways, performed gendered service to states and sponsors. Notwithstanding the presence of women as scientists and tourists, the fact remains that men fundamentally shape the history of Antarctic exploration and engagement, those men mainly white and hailing from the Euro-American world. So there is also a racial dimension to this history of exploration. This is changing. Non-white men and a diversity of women from the global South are beginning to make their presence felt, mimicking, challenging, and extending previous acts of exploration and discovery.

Contemporary discoveries

While explorers discovered Antarctica in the sense of bringing it into systems of knowledge – such as maps (geological as well as cartographical) – it is worth also thinking of tourism as a form of discovery, this time personal rather than universal. Not mentioned in the text of the Antarctic Treaty, the omission was not surprising given that the first commercial visit occurred only in 1956 via an over-flight, and in 1957 when a Pan-American Airways aircraft landed at McMurdo Sound.  Within a decade of the Treaty’s signing, however, ship-based cruises had become routine, usually involving yachts, even if overall numbers remained modest. Between the 1950s and 1970s, fewer than 1,000 tourists a year visited the Antarctic. Numbers began to increase in the 1980s and 1990s, with figures exceeding 5,000, and then most notably in the last decade, the figures exceeded 20,000 and peaked at 35,000-40,000 at the height of the tourist boom in the 1990s and 2000s.

Following the onset of the financial crisis (c. 2008), the numbers declined somewhat to around 37,000 in 2009–10, with the vast majority voyaging by ship around the Antarctic Peninsula region, for reasons of relative proximity and cost. Many of the visitors have been women, and increasingly numbers have come from outside Europe and North America. The tourism industry has drawn both on memories of past exploration (‘In the footsteps of Scott and Shackleton’) and contemporary interest in the fate of wilderness regions such as the Antarctic (a kind of disaster tourism - see it before it disappears) to dispatch far more people to the Antarctic than was possible in the years preceding the advent of the first commercial over-flight. The predominantly ship based industry was further enhanced by the post-Cold War release of former Soviet icebreakers, which had previously worked in the Arctic region. My first visit to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1997 was on board a former Soviet Union icebreaker departing from the port of Ushuaia with only 40 passengers.

The largest ships involved in Antarctic tourism, by way of contrast, were the Princess Cruise Line’s Golden Princess and Star Princess, carrying more than 3,500 passengers, with more limited opportunities for actually leaving the ships once in the Antarctic. However, the tourism industry in the Antarctic is a dynamic one. It is no longer accurately characterized as merely ship-based, with some over-flight activity. If you have the necessary resources, it is now possible to mountaineer, ski, parachute, and kayak in the Antarctic. There are far more operators compared to the early 1990s when seven operators helped to create the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). By 2010-2011, over 100 companies are participating, with responsibility for thousands of people sailing, landing, and flying around, in, and over the polar continent and surrounding ocean. While not all the visitors land in the Antarctic, about27,000–28,000 people do each year. The overall value of the sector is estimated to be about US$40–50 million per year.

Discovering the Antarctic in this fashion does have costs and implications. While tourism does generate revenue for research stations selling stamps and souvenirs and can be used to help fund conservation initiatives, it can also lead to concerns about contamination of particular sites, the accidental introduction of non-indigenous species, the degradation of habitats, disruption of animal breeding, and search-and-rescue-related emergencies. In and around the Antarctic Peninsula, the twenty most popular sites are being monitored, and the sinking of the tourist-carrying MV Explorer in 2007 reminded the industry that accidents do happen when you ‘follow in the footsteps’ of past explorers (fortunately without loss of life on this occasion). The crash of Air New Zealand flight 901 in November 1979, which led to 257 people perishing when the plane struck Mount Erebus during an over-flight, remains a reminder that such activities are not risk-free. The cumulative impact of all kinds of tourism, including smaller tailor-made trips to remoter parts of the Antarctic, is still be determined, and is difficult to ascertain given its diverse nature, albeit concentrated in the summer season.

Some members of the scientific community complain that tourism interferes with the conduct of scientific research, and can be a distraction for staff attached to research stations. Critics, however, point out that tourism in the 1980s played a powerful role in forcing scientists to improve their environmental behaviour in and around research stations. Tourists discovered that open-air burning of waste was carried out at some research stations. With the entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection in 1998, Consultative Members, in consultation with IAATO, have worked to create guidelines and provisions regarding insurance, contingency planning, responsible behaviour in Antarctica, and the like. Enforcing guidelines is problematic given the contested sovereignty of Antarctica and the multi-national nature of the industry itself. Tour operators working in the Antarctic do not have to be members of IAATO, and concerns have been expressed that tour operators eager to provide their clients with ever more dramatic and extraordinary experiences will push to offer new ‘discoveries’ off the established routes of ship-based tourism in particular. As with skiing, there is an incentive to go off-piste, especially when faced with a situation in which you might have several ships literally taking turns to visit popular sites in the Antarctic Peninsula. Tracking and tracing vessels, in  sometimes poorly mapped Antarctic waters, represents a considerable challenge made worse by commercial pressures to offer, as we noted, a unique experience. A new mandatory international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters, which might take effect in 2013, should address some outstanding concerns relating to ship safety, training, and safety equipment.

The continued discovery of Antarctica by tourists is an important element in the wider human encounter with the polar continent and surrounding ocean. There have been shipping-related accidents, and if the sector continues to expand post-financial crisis, then pressure will mount for further action regarding regulation. But we should also remember that tourism, whether invoking discovery or not, is economically and politically significant. Claimant states, especially those possessing gateway ports in Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands, Australia, and New Zealand, benefit from this industry. Tourists spend money in these places as well as on the boats and planes plying up and down to Antarctica. Politically, port state jurisdiction and the control of tourist activity help to cement a de facto authority over Antarctic territories. Argentina, Australia, and Chile have all discussed further land-based facilities such as hotels and the way in which this infrastructure provides opportunities to cement sovereign authority and make money. 

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