Will Tourists Trash Antarctica?

Conservationists are worried that the growing numbers of visitors, and their desire to do more than sit around on ships, might mar one of the few remaining pristine environments on earth:

Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism” like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off.

The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force.

“I think there’s been a foot off the pedal in recent years,” said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions. “If it takes five years, 10 years to bring even what you agree into force, it’s very difficult to micromanage these sorts of developments.”

Antarctic tourism has grown from fewer than 2,000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08. Then the numbers plummeted, bottoming out at fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12.

Humans have an unyielding desire for self-gratification: to go new places, see new things, impress their friends at cocktail parties. And they rarely think about–or care much about–the subtle ways in which their presence affects the very ecosystems they have come to admire. They love it to death.

Whenever I visit one of the world’s natural wonders I feel both awe and sadness–sadness at how crowds and commercialism have devalued and demeaned the site. The latest place I experienced this was Niagara Falls, which is a mesmerizing natural feature as long as you keep your eyes on the astounding flow of water and don’t let them stray to the shores, where casinos, chain hotels, fast food franchises, malls, and schlock have overgrown both banks.

Antarctica has been protected from this invasion by the Southern Ocean. But every barrier eventually and increasingly yields to the lure of commercial profit. That means more noise, more pollution, more garbage, more displacement and irritation for the wildlife, and a greater potential for inadvertent disaster like fuel spills. Whatever regulations and guidelines that do get created, if any do, will favor the idea of easy tourism. And no doubt we’ll hear the argument that to save and protect Antarctica first we have to love it. And to love it we have to see it.

I would love to go to Antarctica, but to me the over-riding value that humans should take with them into the wild is: do no harm, leave no trace. That will make it harder for thousands, or millions, of tourists to access remote ecosystems. But if we can’t go to a place without destroying or degrading it, we shouldn’t go at all. Seeing and immersing yourself in a spectacular natural environment is not a right. It is not there simply for your amusement. Going into the deep wild is a privilege and it comes with a responsibility to protect.

So my regulation for Antarctic tourism would be very simple: no engines. Sail there, and paddle once you arrive. Earn the right the visit. You won’t trash the place you are admiring, and I guarantee the experience will be far more rewarding.

The Art Of (Distaff) Travel Writing

Perhaps we will never again see the likes of Bruce Chatwin, H.W. Tilman, Rebecca West, and Fitzroy Maclean (whose Eastern Approaches is not well known, but one of the all-time greats). But this looks pretty good: The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011.

Here’s a taste from a piece about running whitewater in Costa Rica, from Bridget Crocker, a copy writer for Patagonia (full excerpt is here):

Demin BW Portrait Bridget
[Author and river guide, Bridget Crocker. Photo by Tony Demin.]

“This upper section is called ‘The Labyrinth,’” Roland says, cinching down his frayed lifejacket. “It’s been run maybe three or four times before today. I’ve seen it a couple times and I’d say it’s pretty solid Class V. Lots of steep drops through tight chutes. There are a few slots we have to make—it’s not an option to miss them. I think I can remember them all, but we’ll have to scout as we go. There’s no way out of the gorge once we start.”

Normally I would be anxious about taking a flaccid shredder down a little-run Class V boulder garden without the safety of other boaters along or even an evacuation route. Plus, Roland forgot his helmet and we have no throw bag. Oddly, I couldn’t care less. I feel no hint of the usual Class V jitters or concern for our lack of preparedness. It occurs to me that I may be spared a trip to Cathedral Point, as our little daytrip down the Labyrinth is suicidal enough.

[Chorro Rapid at stomping flow. Upper Naranjo River, Costa Rica. Photo by David Findley]We climb into the tiny craft and immediately drop into a sizeable chute cascading onto exposed rocks. It’s continuous maneuvering from there; the maze is relentless and we’re teetering and spinning off boulders, fighting each other’s rhythm. We catch a small eddy and Roland, who’s sitting on the left side of the shredder, shouts out, “Do you guide from the left or right?”

“Left,” I say.

“I guide from the right, let’s switch sides.”

[Keeping the flame alive – the late, great Costa Rican river legend, Roland Cervilla. Photo by Arturo Oropeza.]

We start to click after switching, powerfully stroking across current lines and straightening out for the drops. Paddling becomes like meditation; there’s only the hum of frenetic water and our focused concentration on the line.

We park on a rock cluster above the first big rapid, “Stacy’s Lament.” Roland explains that the last time he ran down the Labyrinth, he escorted some kayakers from Colorado who were insistent that Costa Rican Class V was really like Class IV in Colorado. After spending a good portion of the upper section upside down, the group became disheartened while scouting the first “real” rapid. One of the more intrepid Colorado paddlers probed it first, hitting the narrow, eight-foot drop on the far left side next to the gorge wall. Just below the drop, he inexplicably veered and smashed headlong into the curving monolith. He swam out of his kayak and was pushed by the funneling current into the collection of sieve rocks stacked against the right wall of the gorge. Submerged for some time against the rocks, he surfaced in a pool of blood minutes later, his face badly lacerated from the impact. That’s when Stacy, the least experienced of the group, began to cry uncontrollably, realizing that there was no way to portage our line around the rapid. There was only one way out: through the guts.

Read on….

Roz Savage: Rowing With Purpose

(cross-posted from SailingWorld.com)

I’ve always admired Roz Savage. Bored to death as a management consultant, at the age of 33 the British adventurer pulled the plug on her conventional life and went to sea—in a rowing boat. She started with the Atlantic, in 2005, and then kept rowing. She crossed the Pacific, in three stages between 2008-2010, and then stroked her way across the Indian Ocean this year. She arrived in Mauritius on October 4, becoming the first woman to row solo across three oceans. In all, she has covered 10,000 miles, and thrilled thousands of Walter Mittys with herenergetic blogging and insightful videos. Along the way she became an outspoken advocate for the environment and the oceans.


I caught up with Roz while she was traveling the East Coast, and managed to speak with her as she was making her way toward the Apple store in Manhattan for a technology fix:

What made you quit the real world and go to sea?
It was the realization that they just weren’t paying me enough to be that miserable. I was doing a job I didn’t like to buy stuff I didn’t need. The insanity of it suddenly dawned on me. So I had to do some serious thinning about what would make me happy. I sat down and wrote the two versions of my own obituary, the one that I wanted, and the one that I was heading for, and realized that working in an office cubicle was definitely not the legacy I wanted to leave to the world.

What do you love most about being at sea?
I actually find it very tough out there. It’s definitely not my natural habitat, and I’m always relieved to get back to dry land. At the same time, I do enjoy the solitude and perspective it gives me on what’s important in life. You realize how little stuff you actually need. And you also realize how amazing and how powerful nature is. She has a way of really letting you know who is boss when you’re facing 20-foot waves and adverse winds.

Do you have any favorite moments?
There have been some pretty amazing things that I’ve seen, especially at the nighttime. I saw a moonbow, something I didn’t even know existed. It’s what you get when there is a really, really bright moon and a rain shower, and it’s like a rainbow but it’s sort of monochrome. That was very cool. Of course there is the wildlife as well. Probably the coolest creature I’ve ever seen was the baby whaleshark that spent about 20 minutes swimming around my boat.

What have been the most difficult moments?
Well, capsizing is never fun. I did that a couple of times this year and three times back in 2007. That’s just miserable really. But apart from the capsizing, in between the capsizes you are wondering when the next big wave is going to hit. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s not a fun way to spend the night.

What do you think about Olly Hicks’ plan to try and row the Southern Ocean?
I’m a bit worried about Olly. I absolutely wish him all the best, but the Southern Ocean is just brutal. I wish he wouldn’t do it, but I know what it’s like when you get a bee in your bonnet, and you just really have to do something. So I completely understand why he is doing it, but I’ll be very relieved when he makes it back to dry land.

Why row? Sailing is so much nicer.
[Laughs] You’re right. I think sailors do have the right idea. I can’t tell you how many times that occurred to me this year. They get to go a lot faster for a lot less effort. But I am not very good at sailing, and I seem to have a bit of a mental block about it. So for me rowing was something that I had done before and it seemed that much more doable. And I suppose another attraction was that—probably for very good reason—there are very few people who have rowed across oceans. So if you’re trying to get sponsorship and bag a few world records, then there are more records to be had by rowing. The records aren’t really that important to me, but I have ended up with four of them.

What have you seen at sea in terms of plastic and garbage?
Most of the plastic is not very visible. I wish I had seen more conspicuous signs of it because if I could have brought back some really shocking photos that would have been really helpful. But most of it is isolated items or a thin soup of very tiny pieces. Still, when you read the estimates of how much plastic is really out there—like they guess three and a half million tons of trash in the North Pacific Garbage Patch alone, and that is just one of five gyres around the world—it really is quite staggering. Sometimes it surprises me that it’s not even worse than that when you look at just how much plastic we are generating every single day. The main thing is to just try and stop generating so much plastic in the first place. Once it gets into the ocean, it’s really challenging to try and get it back out.

When you speak about the oceans and your voyages, what are your primary messages?
The main message is more on the inspirational level. I think a lot of people are concerned about what’s happening in the environment. We sort of know intuitively that it’s just not sustainable to carry on the way that we are. But a lot of people feel like they really can’t make a difference. So my key message really is that every single action we take is helping to create our future. It took me five million oar strokes to row across three oceans. One oar stroke doesn’t get you very far. But if you take five million tiny actions, it really adds up. So I’d like to get everybody realizing that they’re having an impact on the future, and they have that power. But with that power comes responsibility, and we all just need to be a lot more mindful of how much we are using in the way of resources and stuff that we throw away, and where that’s going to. On a finite earth, what goes around comes around.

So having rowed all those oceans, what’s next? Roz plans to make a film with her “message of inspiration.” Beyond rowing, she’s also looking to do a lot more speaking, travel, and land-based adventure, “because the opportunity cost of spending five months in the middle of an ocean is just too high.” Oh, yes, she has also agreed to sail around Borneo.

Weekly Adventure Fix

The latest edition of my Adventure Fix newsletter is out. This edition features a haunting story about a 40 year old plane crash, a dark look at humanity’s future, through the prism of Africa’s Albertine Rift, and lots more. Like this spectacular video:

Adventure Fix costs just $1.99 a month for weekly links to great online adventure content. You can sign up here.

Weekly Adventure Fix

The latest edition of my Adventure Fix newsletter is out. This week I’ve got some harrowing tornado tales, Walter Cronkite on the America’s Cup, and more, including this gem:

Adventure Fix costs just $1.99 a month for weekly links to great online adventure content. You can sign up here.

Introducing Wetass Weekly

Image via Wikipedia

Every month, I read tons of of stuff about adventure and the outdoors. I watch lots of videos. And as a result I see a lot of pretty amazing content. But I also see plenty of terrible, eye-gouging, stuff. Not exactly cats-playing-with-a-ball-of-wool-type stuff, but plenty of material that is definitely a waste of time.

The good stuff I recommend in a sort of random way to my friends, and on Twitter. But I recently came across an interesting online service that makes it very easy to create and manage a newsletter. It’s called Letterly, and I want to use it to send out a weekly newsletter that will try to capture the best of the best in online content from the worlds of adventure and the outdoors.

The Wetass Weekly will aim to be a quick weekly guide to a small selection of great articles and videos about adventure, extreme sport, or the environment–content that will be well worth your time, and be laid out in a way that lets you click right to it. My goal is to every week send you something that will amaze or inspire you. Or simply make you laugh or slap your forehead in disbelief. And it will cost just $1.99 a month (subscribing is a painless snap, via the wonders of Amazon).

Ice climbing
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just created the inaugural Wetass Weekly, to give it a try, and it includes links to–among other recommendations–the best article you will ever read about mankind’s checkered efforts to control the waters of the mighty Mississippi (I know this because the author was placed on this earth to write about exactly this sort of topic), an inside look at danger and death in professional cycling, and a mesmerizing video about the devastating practice of shark finning. Plus, I tell you about the best documentary I’ve seen since Grizzly Man.

You can check it out by subscribing here. And don’t worry, if you don’t find anything I send you each week remotely interesting or worthwhile, unsubscribing just takes one click on the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of every newsletter.

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