Cruising Sustainably in the Southern Ocean

Article and images by Dr. Harvey Croze, Former Assistant Executive Director UNEP; Co-founder, Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Kenya; Science Advisor, Friends of Karura Community Forest Association, Kenya, and LT&C Member

Our little LT&C-endorsed group had waited nearly three years for the coast to be Covid-clear before we could embark with Oceanwide Expeditions on an 18-day circuit to the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, and the Falklands/Malvinas from Ushuaia in Argentina. OWE had rewarded the loyalty of those who left their original pre-pandemic payments in place with cabin upgrades: some of us ended up luxuriously close to the bridge.

Our run through the ice free ocean, till the snowy peaks appeared,
Crowned by the gold of the morning, shod with the glaciers weird.
Then the black lead of open water with a good ship gathered way,
The seal asleep on the ice flow, quaint small penguins play.

Earnest Shackleton, L’Envoi, ca. 1903

My four years of elephant research in the Serengeti left me believing that its annual wildebeest migration is the world’s best offering of wildlife biomass spectacle. I was wrong. The abundance of life fed by the nutrient-rich Southern Ocean upwellings in the Antarctic Circle is nonpareil. Far, far more penguins than wildebeests, seals than zebras, whales than elephants. For grass, read krill. For scenery, think NatGeo on steroids. We ran out of superlatives and nearly out of disk space early in the voyage.

As the m/v Hondius only had 170 passengers, we were typically able to have at least one, sometimes two Zodiac landings a day when not at sea. That meant we could easily accommodate the IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) cap of 100 visitors at a time on special breeding or resting sites of countless birds and beasts. In fact, between IAATO and the various protectorate authorities of the region, the bio-safety and environmental controls are rigorous in the extreme, to the point where our Expedition Team was handing out paper clips for us to pick potentially alien seeds from the creases in our heavy rubber Muck boots.

When not suiting up for a magical landing, tramping around the landing, or sanitising boots and gear back on-board, we were treated to wonderful snacks and mealtimes (full marks to the chef and catering staff) and an impressive menu of informative lectures by the Expedition Team. The Team comprised a dozen youthful professionals — in biology, geology, ornithology, mammalogy, glaciology, geography, history, medicine… you name it — who appeared to be having the times of their lives. They could also pilot the Zodiacs, tell us the difference between a male and female king penguin, and keep us from getting too close to elephant seals during our walks on land.

The multi-national Hondius crew were professional, skilled, and clearly well-disciplined in the need for rigorous protection of the Antarctic’s pristine ecosystems, which, like most ecosystems on earth, are facing existential threats from human impacts. In fact, some of our original LT&C “Penguins” had opted out of the trip not wishing to be part of a venture in the family of those enterprises possibly contributing to such impacts. The rest of us assuaged whatever guilt we might have felt with the fact that OWE has recently built the Hondius to the highest standards of low environmental impact, and that the ethos of the company and deportment of the crew appear to meet the most demanding environment-friendly norms.

Let’s hope they can continue to contribute to that delicate balance between “using it or losing it” and help get us to 30-30 before the current of the Drake Passage reverses irreversibly.

To join a Svalbard LT&C Study Tour with Oceanwide Expeditions, see the “East Spitsbergen – Summer Solstice” cruise.

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