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After hitting an iceberg last November, the Explorer sank in frigid waters near the South Shetland Islands.

A Titanic Challenge

The cruise ship deftly maneuvered around the icebergs as it made its way to open ocean. But in the early morning hours last November 23, an iceberg punched a hole in its hull. As water started pouring in, the 154 passengers and crew members climbed into rubber lifeboats, where they waited six hours to be rescued. As the 39-year-old Explorer sank into the icy depths, some 48,000 gallons of light diesel fuel spilled into the sea.

The near calamity highlighted the threat from an influx of tourists to Antarctica and renewed a debate that has raged for decades: How many is too many? About 38,000 people visited the continent last year, a jump of 10,000 from three years ago. One-third of them were from the United States.

But the more vessels that make the trip—some with heavier fuel and up to 2,500 cruise-goers per vessel—the greater the potential for disaster, like a massive oil spill. Thousands of tourists also add stress to wildlife, environmentalists contend. “The ultimate values of Antarctica are the wilderness and the science,” says Jim Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a conservation group. “We are jeopardizing those for future generations.”

The region is so remote that it still takes days of rough sailing to get there. No one country owns the continent either, which complicates policing. “Antarctica is like this giant world park,” says Steve Forrest, a biologist with the World Wildlife Fund who has been conducting research there for 13 years. “And we don’t have any park rangers.”

Twenty-eight nations have signed and ratified the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty of 1991, agreeing to preserve the environment there by restricting visitors in certain habitats and protecting some species, such as fur and Ross seals. Since then, however, more cruise ships have been plying the waters. In 1991 the International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators (IAATO), an organization to which 95 percent of all Antarctic tour companies belong, had a membership of three operators that offered trips to Antarctica. Now it has 55.

Last year the treaty’s signatories decided to prohibit liners with more than 500 passengers— about 15 percent of the ships that travel there—from landing on Antarctica. “We just thought that the environment was too fragile,” says Claudia McMurray, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment, and science.

Ultimately it’s to every company’s benefit to keep the Antarctic pristine, which is one of the reasons the IAATO has mandatory guidelines for responsible tourism. “We’ve got excellent working practices in place,” says Denise Landau, the group’s executive director. “But it takes constant work and monitoring.”—Susan Cosier
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