Sunday, July 5, 2009

How safe is it to visit Antarctica?

The Economist reports:

Help is usually not far away. Although cruise ships plan their itinerary so as to keep out of each other’s sight, there are generally 20 to 30 boats heading to or from the Antarctic peninsula on any one day, according to Steve Wellmeier of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.

Even so, surviving an accident is something of a lottery. It depends partly on the weather. Not all the ships have the covered lifeboats recommended for polar conditions. Small boats, like the Explorer, have a better chance of being able to transfer their passengers if they get into difficulties. But some cruise ships visiting Antarctica now carry almost 3,000 passengers—more than ten times the limit that offers a reasonable chance of timely rescue, according to Chile’s navy.

The navy is chafing at the cost of patrols, rescue operations and cleaning up fuel spills. It wants legally binding rules, backed by penalties, for Antarctic cruise ships. But that is hard to achieve. Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty no country can exercise sovereignty over any part of the continent and its waters are international. Some rules on tourism have been written under the treaty: cruise ships carrying over 500 passengers cannot make landings, for example. But these are not legally enforceable. Neither will be rules being debated by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organisation on safety requirements.

Some tour operators say they would welcome tighter regulation and higher safety standards. Others insist that safety is already adequate. The world recession may place a temporary brake on the trade. But Chilean officials reckon that the trend to big cruise ships, with their cheaper fares, will resume once recovery comes. If so, a tragedy may be only a matter of time.

It's quite clear that the big ships ought to be kept away.

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