Is Antarctica Getting Too Popular for Its Own Good?

This past season was the busiest—and deadliest—on record for Antarctica. Has the White Continent fallen prey to overtourism?

Aerial view of Antarctica coastline

Witnessing the beauty of Antarctica—but at what cost?

Photo by Matt Palmer/Unsplash

Pam Trusdale and her husband, Tom, of Wichita, Kansas, were just a few days into their dream cruise to Antarctica when she said the first “freak” accident happened.

Riding in a Zodiac that was taking them from Viking’s newest expedition ship, Viking Polaris, to the luxury vessel’s mini submarine for one of their first excursions, Trusdale said she was taking pictures of penguins when an explosion rocked the small inflatable boat “and we flew about two to three feet in the air.”

One man landed in the icy water and was quickly pulled back in, unharmed. But the woman next to Trusdale suffered a broken leg and shattered heel, prompting Viking to cut the cruise short and head back to Argentina to get the passenger medical attention.

That’s when a second—and fatal—accident occurred. Sailing through the notoriously turbulent and unpredictable Drake Passage, a rogue wave slammed into the ship, “knocking down walls and breaking out windows,” Trusdale said. One American passenger died, and four others were injured.

The Viking accidents in late November came less than two weeks after two other Americans on a Quark Expeditions trip died when their Zodiac flipped near Cape Lookout, Elephant Island, where water temperatures can reach minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Also in November, a passenger died aboard a Netherlands-flagged Antarctic cruise ship. Few details have been released on that incident, although unconfirmed reports on social media indicate the person fell in the shower during rough seas.

Following the accidents, Viking and Quark issued statements saying they were investigating the cause of the incidents. Quark said the capsizing of its Zodiac appeared to have been caused by a breaking wave and promised “full cooperation with the relevant authorities.” Viking added that it is committed to the safety and security of all guests and crew.

The back-to-back mishaps came at the beginning of what was expected to be the busiest—and was ultimately one of the deadliest—Antarctic tourism seasons on record. And they prompted the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other international bodies to send teams to the region to investigate.

Is it safe to cruise in Antarctica?

Data collected by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) show major incidents are rare—the last one prior to the late 2022 incidents was in 2007 when one of the original Antarctic passenger ships, the MS Explorer, sank after striking an iceberg. All passengers and crew were rescued. According to IAATO, the only other fatality involving a cruise passenger in recent history came in 2013, when a scuba diver who got separated from her group died.

This season’s incidents may prove to be just what Trusdale characterized them as: freak accidents. It will likely take a while before the investigations shed further light into whether human error, ship design flaws, or other factors may have played a role. But they come as tourism to the White Continent is exploding.

Travel to this remote, rugged, and wildlife-rich corner of the world—which many who have made the journey characterize as a life-changing event—was on the rise well before COVID-19. In the past year, as international travel has rebounded, it has become “one of the hottest tickets” in travel, and a destination on “everyone’s radar,” says Bob Simpson, vice president of expedition cruise product development for Silversea Cruises. That already growing interest, he and others say, has been further fueled by a combination of postpandemic demand for once-in-a-lifetime adventures and the launch of some two dozen upscale, luxury, and ultra-luxury ships since 2019 with amenities new to expedition sailing like spacious suites, spas, and high-end toys like mini submarines and helicopters.

Scott Caddow, a luxury travel advisor and founder of the Legendary World agency, also attributes the growth to an increase in younger, more adventurous travelers who can afford a journey on the new luxury expedition ships, which can run upwards of $25,000 per passenger.

The IAATO estimates that a record 106,000 tourists sailed to the region on 86 ships this season, up from 73,670 on 62 vessels in the 2019–2020 season. And with any such rise comes increased odds for accidents and human error.

Penguins on a glacier in Drake Passage in Antarctica

Breathtaking images of natural beauty make the Antarctica experience meaningful for so many.

Photo by Shutterstock

Because no one country or region governs Antarctica, the industry is essentially self-regulated, meaning there is no central, public database of safety records for individual companies and operators. But IAATO—which sets safety and environmental rules for member cruise lines and tour operators, including things like minimum expedition team member experience requirements and passenger-to-crew ratios—tracks all major incidents involving humans and wildlife as part of its mission to “ensure risks are understood and appropriate lessons are learned for all Antarctic operators.” Members are required to report all accidents. Details are included in annual reports the group files with the Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates all human activity in the region. When picking a cruise line or tour operator, veteran guides suggest researching the companies and their individual safety records carefully and looking for ships and companies with proven experience in the region.

As for the vessels themselves, in 2017, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a mandatory Polar Code to ensure that ships operate safely in the polar regions and that environmental protections are properly taken into account. The Polar Code divides ships into ice class ratings, which range from Polar Class 1 (PC 1) to Polar Class 7 (PC 7). A vessel with the highest rating, PC 1, can operate year-round in all polar waters. Here is the full list of Polar Codes:

  • PC 1: Year-round operation in all polar, ice-covered waters
  • PC 2: Year-round operation in moderate multi-year ice
  • PC 3: Year-round operation in second-year ice, which may include multi-year ice
  • PC 4: Year-round operation in thick first-year ice, which may include old ice
  • PC 5: Year-round operation in medium first-year ice, which may include old ice
  • PC 6: Summer/autumn operation in medium first-year ice, which may include old ice
  • PC 7: Summer/autumn operation in thin first-year ice, which may include old ice

Most passenger vessels in Antarctica have a PC 6 rating as they operate only in the Southern Hemisphere’s safer summer months, between November and April. Cruise ships with a PC 5 rating include Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution. And one passenger cruise vessel has a PC 2 rating, French line Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot.

French cruise line Ponant's "Le Commandant Charcot" vessel sails amid ice sheets in Antarctica

French cruise line Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is the only passenger vessel in Antarctica with a very high Polar Class 2 (PC 2) rating.

Photo by Olivier Blaud/Ponant

The IMO Polar Code is based on requirements for polar class ships developed by the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS). IACS outlines detailed structural and safety requirements for polar class ships that include precise specifications for the design of the ship’s hull and ice load capabilities (including what type of ice the vessel would be able to bypass). The polar class rating of any cruise ship should be readily available by searching online for the name of the vessel and “polar class rating,” or by asking the cruise line or tour operator directly.

How rough is the Drake Passage? Can it be avoided altogether?

There is no real “better” time to sail the notorious Drake Passage, where waters from the Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern oceans converge, although some say it can be calmer at the height of the southern summer in December and January. (The Antarctica cruise season runs from November through March.)

About the only thing predictable about the Drake Passage is its unpredictability. Conditions can range from totally calm, or what is known as the “Drake Lake,” to the “Drake Shake,” when swells of 20 feet of more roil the waters. And those conditions can change on a dime. Captains, however, are experienced and equipped to change course regularly to forge a smoother path.

IAATO reports only one other incident involving damage to a ship during a Drake passing, in December 2010 when a large wave hit the MV Clelia II, breaking a bridge window and causing an electrical and communications malfunction. One crew member was slightly injured, and the ship returned safely to Ushuaia.

For many, sailing the Drake Passage is a key part of the Antarctic experience. But the passage takes two days each way. For those looking for a shorter cruise, more time on the Seventh Continent, or simply to avoid the potentially harrowing waves (and seasickness), a number of both traditional expedition cruise operators and new luxury lines offer what they call “bridge sailings,” where passengers fly from Chile to King George Island so they can board the ship directly in Antarctica, thus bypassing the passage completely.

What other health and safety considerations are there when sailing to Antarctica?

Simpson advises that in order to take advantage of all the activities and experiences offered by expedition cruises, there is a level of fitness to consider. But even in situations where mobility may be challenging, he said, “We always have a journey that is the right fit for any guest. Sitting on the balcony taking in the experience or going on as many excursions as possible would depend on each individual, but generally we can accommodate guests of all levels of fitness or mobility.”

People in a Zodiac boat observe an ice formation suspended above an archway of ice in Antarctica

People come from far and wide to view the beautiful—and fragile—Antarctica landscapes.

Photo by Long Ma/Unsplash

What is the environmental toll of sailing in Antarctica?

Ricardo Roura, a senior advisor to the conservation-focused Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition that has been trying unsuccessfully for years to limit ship traffic in the region, says he is less concerned about the recent boom’s impact on human safety than its effect on wildlife.

The growth in ship traffic, he said, poses increased threats of collisions with whales and problems from underwater noise pollution. And cruise ships all land in a relatively small geographic area, meaning more passengers are treading on pristine habitats to get up close and personal with penguins and other wildlife.

Simpson, a former chair of IAATO, notes the organization has very stringent—and constantly evolving—environmental protection safeguards that all members are obliged to follow. And he said IAATO members have been working for more than a decade to expand their range of operations beyond what they refer to as “hot spots.” As part of that effort, he said Silversea recently conducted a 12-day scouting voyage to map, verify, and create site guidelines for new locations throughout the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands.

For passengers who are concerned about their footprint in the region, they should research the sustainability and wildlife conservation commitments of the cruise line or tour operator they are traveling with and should also pay attention to whether and how the company is getting guests further off the beaten path.

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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