Penguins: The Rules of Engagement

My friend Cathy called my attention to a story that ran in the Washington Post the other day, titled “Antarctica is Such a Trendy Vacation Spot That Chinese Officials Made a Don’t-Touch-Penguins Rule.” Apparently Chinese tourists are flocking to the Antarctic in such large numbers that China suddenly realized it didn’t have any guidelines for their behavior, which, as a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, it’s supposed to have.

I’m actually not sure how you could manage to visit Antarctica without encountering the rules for being a good visitor. On our trip last month, we had a mandatory briefing on the second day we were on the ship, well before we reached Antarctica. The briefing is a requirement of the International Association of Antarctic Trip Operators, or IAATO, which works very hard to keep Antarctica pristine.

We were required to vacuum our outerwear and backpacks before heading onshore.

There was stuff I’d never thought of, such as the need to decontaminate your outerwear so that you don’t inadvertently bring new plant species on shore. Our expedition leader cited a study of 55 voyages to Antarctica, in which 30 percent of visitors were found to have plant seeds clinging to them—usually on their footwear, backpacks, or camera bags. The seeds belonged to 250 different species of plants. So later that day we all headed to the ship’s lounge, where we used portable vacuum cleaners to go over every inch of any gear or outerwear that we planned to take on shore—with special attention to Velcro, which is a big culprit when it comes to carrying seeds. Read more