Large Cruise Ships Banned in Antarctica

Reinhard Jahn, Wikimedia Commons

Starting August 2011, most large cruise ships will no longer be regulated to sail Antarctic waters.

The International Maritime Organization, a special agency of the United Nations, will restrict vessels carrying heavy oil from intruding on the Antarctic environment. Heavy fuel oil is slow to break down, especially in cold water, making it more environmentally hazardous than other marine fuel oils.

According to a report by USA Today, cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers will no longer be able to sail in Antarctica. Currently, Princess Cruises and Holland America cruise the same waters on large ships carrying more than 2,000 passengers. Unlike smaller-scale expedition cruises, passengers on these cruises are not allowed to disembark, but the ships sail close enough for passengers to observe penguins and even encounter icebergs.

Steve Wellmeier, executive director of The International Association of Antarctica Tourism Operators, an organization promoting "safe and environmentally responsible" travel to the Antarctic, told USA Today that the organization supports the principles behind the ban. The IAATO said the number of cruise passengers visiting the Antarctic area is expected to dip from 15,331 to 6,400 when the ban takes effect.

"Largely, it will be the large cruise-only vessels that are affected, rather than the smaller expedition ships that most people think of as Antarctic cruising," Wellmeier told USA Today. Smaller ships pose less environmental threat in the advent of a leak because the ships use less harmful fuel that dissipates quickly in water.

Antarctica has seen an increase in tourist and shipping traffic over recent years, causing many concerns over environmental impact and maritime safety. In 2007, the MS Explorer, a ship touring Antarctica with 100 passengers, hit an iceberg and sank. All passengers were evacuated and there were no injuries, but an unknown amount of oil was released into Antarctic waters.
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