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.
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.
There are plenty of other rules for visitors to the Antarctic. Ships must coordinate their landings with each other. No more than 100 people can be onshore at a time. There has to be a ratio of one guide for every five guests. Visitors need to stay at least 15 feet away from wildlife. Drones are prohibited. (Thank goodness.)
While the ship’s expedition leader, Klemenz Pütz, said he was required to read the rules to us verbatim, that didn’t stop him from ad-libbing a few extra pieces of advice and throwing in a few extra slides for laughs (including the one above, featuring German chancellor Angela Merkel feeding a penguin—a definite no-no). After telling us that it’s illegal to introduce new animal species to Antarctica, he added, “Do not take your hamster ashore and set it free.” And he cautioned us to keep our distance from fur seals: “All they want is to mate with you,” he said, and after the laughter died down, he shook his head slowly and added, “and believe me, you don’t want that.”
I was also interested to hear that visitors no longer can go swimming at Pendulum Cove, on Deception Island. It’s not clear to me whether that’s true for all Antarctica visitors, or whether it’s just a rule on the Ponant ships. Deception Island is actually the sunken crater of a volcano, and still has a little volcanic activity underneath it—enough to warm the chilly waters a wee bit. On our trip there in 2002, some of the passengers stripped down to swimsuits and waded in. But our expedition leader on this trip said there have been a few heart attacks and other medical incidents as a result of the practice, so it’s no longer allowed. As with the other rules, that seems entirely reasonable to me.