Have you ever wondered who owns Antarctica? It wasn’t really something I had thought much about until I ran into it face-to-face on my cruise. I had heard earlier that both Argentina and Chile lay claims to some land areas there. However, Antarctica is the only place in the world where the land is not officially owned by anyone or any one country and the land claims are not recognized.
In the late 50s, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by a number of countries, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet union, the UK, and the USA. These countries represented the first attempt to deal with the management of The Antarctic continent. The treaty established the area south of 60° south as a region “devoted to peace and science” and came into effect in the early 60s.
Multiple governments have set up permanent research stations in Antarctica and all are signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. You can visit the research stations by setting up appointments ahead of time. Expedition ships can also anchor and take visitors via zodiac boats to various landing sites. These sites are regulated by the IATO – International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, and pre-Covid there was a website where you could apply. For example, The US Palmer research station is very strict and you have to apply months before. During Covid there were no visits to research stations. Earlier others were less strict. You could call in on their radio or email and they would invite you in. After living there for many months, they are very happy to see a new face and most visitors bring food, drinks or treats with them. However since Covid, no visitations have been allowed. They can’t afford to have sick workers there because they are so far away from any kind of serious medical help.
Tourism is exploding in Antarctica and climate change is very evident here. The waters are warmer, the glaziers are melting, and the ice packs that protected their base are disappearing, leaving the glaciers vulnerable to the warmer waters sloshing up against the base and weakening the glaciers. I read recently that Antarctic sea ice has shrunk to its lowest extent in the 45 years of satellite record keeping.
Antarctica is said to be the windiest, driest and coldest continent on earth. and yet when I was there during its summer you could actually see the various lichens and mosses that struggle to grow there, close to the sea, giving a splash of colour to the otherwise white and black palette of Antarctica except of course, for the beautiful blue hues of the icebergs.
When we were there, several other ships were also visiting. So it has become a very desirable destination and more accessible to visit now. I even saw two private sale boats while I was there, although I can’t imagine sailing in those frigid waters. I read that in 2015/16 there were thirty thousand visitors and in 2019/20 around fifty thousand. Is this good or bad? What is the human impact on the area, i.e. fish, birds, seals, research, pollution etc. At the moment there is not enough data on how things were before to really prove there is a human impact.
In my opinion, I would hope that careful screening of the numbers of tourists who visit and what they can and cannot do may have a positive impact with visitors heading back home convinced this is more than just another continent. That it is indeed a precious jewel to protect. The Antarctic Treaty States, supported by Conservation organizations and referred to as the Antarctica Treaty System have adopted a Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic treaty. The Protocol sets out environmental principles, procedures and obligations for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment. The Environmental Protocol applies to tourism, governmental and non-governmental activities in the Antarctic. We were all given the Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic which ensures that all visitors are aware and comply with the Protocol.
Personally, I was astounded and moved by what I saw. The land itself is awe inspiring not to mention the wild life that inhabit this last frontier on earth. I learned about the explorers who came and the many who died. Shackleton, Ross, Weddell, Larsen to name a few and of course Amundsen, the first to make it to the South Pole, beating Ross by one month. One cannot help but be moved just by seeing this ice covered, harsh but beautiful continent and not come away with a huge love and hope that it can always remain the same. Perhaps this knowledge and respect that tourists now take away with them after visiting will help make it so.
I will leave you with a quote I heard while visiting Antarctica. Unfortunately I do not know who wrote this. “If Antarctica were music, it would be Mozart. Art, it would be Michelangelo. Literature, it would be Shakespeare.” But it is as it should be, and may we never tame it!!”