The long awaited decision has been made, starting August 2011 ships burning heavy fuel will no longer be allowed in Antarctic waters. This ban will affect most cruise ships in Antarctica; and all cruise ship carrying more than 500 passengers.
Heavy fuel is the sludgy dregs that remain after diesel is refined. It burns less efficiently than pure diesel or gasoline and produces pollutants harmful to the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Large cruise ships are built to use heavy fuel as it is less expensive than pure diesel or gasoline. Investment in conversion to lighter fuels would be prohibitive due to the high cost and the limited season – some ships call on Antarctica only once a year. The decision to ban ships carrying heavy fuel was made by the International Maritime Organization citing environmental factors. The decision will affect Princess, Holland-America, and Regent. Small expeditionary ships that burn a mixture of diesel, gasoline and oil will still operate. Steve Wellmeier, Executive Director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators said in a statement to the press, “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.”
Though the ban will reduce the numbers of visitors arriving by cruise ship from over 15,000 to 6,000, environmentalists are not convinced the White Continent is sufficiently protected. Small ships do burn cleaner fuel but their smaller passenger load requires more departures to move the same amount of people that would arrive on one large ship thereby contributing more pollutants to the environment albeit cleaner pollutants. The other factor of small ships is a double-edged sword — landings. Ships carrying more than 400 passengers have never been allowed to lower boats of any kind, no guests ever went ashore. Small ships do lower landing craft; trips by zodiac including shore landings where guests can walk among thousands of penguins or bath in beach-side thermal pools are a major selling point of these cruises. Biologists do not know what affect this human contact is having on the wildlife and the fragile ecology.
In the end, this ban is all about safety. Were a large ship to spill heavy fuel in Antarctica the effects would be catastrophic. Isolation and climatic extremes would make clean-up equipment hard to find and clean-up efforts even harder to implement. The fact is large cruise ships are more vulnerable, their hulls have been built for the Caribbean not Antarctica. Unlike small ships, they are not ice hardened nor do they carry survival suits, those bright red-orange, insulated and weatherproof jacket/suits seen in photos of Antarctic expeditions. Survival suits are warm and easily detected in case of emergency. As someone who has sailed around South America 37 times, I know that every cruise has passengers who come unprepared for the cold weather including Antarctica.
The Antarctic experience is like no other in the world and I hope everyone who wants to go will get the chance. It looks like the best way to keep that option available will be smaller ships with better prepared guests on ice hardened ships, burning more environmentally friendly fuel while visiting more regulated regions.