As I write this I am sailing north through the infamous Drake Passage in the South Atlantic. There are hundreds of Black-browed albatrosses, greater shearwaters and Giant petrels following our ship. Tomorrow I’ll be in the Falkland Islands. I have just fulfilled a lifelong dream – to see the great white southern continent. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, remotest, highest, least populated, and cleanest of all the continents. It has 90% of the worlds fresh water and much of the krill, seals, fish and whales left on our planet. Its huge mass of ice generates or at least greatly influences the entire worlds weather. This past Austral summer Antarctica has seen more tourists than any other previous season. I had some concerns about the ethics of taking eco-tourists to this remote place. I did not want to contribute its contamination. But I have learned several things that have eased my mind. According to one study done at Port Lockroy (which is the most visited site in Antarctica) tourists are not affecting the breeding success of Gentoo penguins. I do not mean to imply that the impact of 10,000 people is not significant, it is.. but the penguins are still going about their reproductive business.
And Antarctica, while relatively pristine, is definitely not the untouched paradise that’s often portrayed in the media. For nearly two centuries it has been ruthlessly exploited by humans. First the sealers came and killed thousands of fur and Elephant seals for their pelts and blubber. The whalers were next with hundreds of boats plying the waters, killing every whale they could find. In 1933 one facility was processing 100 whales per day. Remember this was not an ancient trade, it just ended in the 1960’s. The abundance of skeletons on nearly every beach testify mutely to the intense carnage. And though we saw many whales, the numbers are only a shadow of what once was. If it is carefully managed and controlled eco-tourism and scientific work should help keep Antarctica free from territorial claims and mineral exploitation and just maybe the whales will return.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.