The Obama administration’s call for limits to and strict enforcement of Antarctic tourism is strongly supported by Lindblad Expeditions (LEX), the original expedition company that has been exploring the most remote regions of the world since 1958. At an ongoing multi-nation conference on the Antarctic Treaty, which itself was signed one year after Lindblad’s founding, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the nation members to adopt stricter limits on Antarctic tourism and to formalize the voluntary policies that all members of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operations (IAATO) currently follow.
Having pioneered the first laymen’s expedition to Antarctica in 1966, Lindblad Travel (parent company of Lindblad Expeditions) has had decades to understand the inherent risks of operating in such an extreme environment and believes that greater regulation for all operators in the region is necessary. Company CEO Sven Lindblad related: “I spent the 1973/1974 season in Antarctica working with my father on the Lindblad Explorer, the first expedition ship ever built, and it was exciting, to be sure, but not without danger. We were hit twice by storms so intense and without warning that it’s still a surprise to me that no serious accidents occurred.
“Today, though, our expeditions are much safer than they were in the 1970s, as we have better weather and ice prediction services, improved emergency communications, and new technology that allows us to navigate our ships more safely. But clearly the most important difference is how much more experience we have now, and our captains and expedition leaders are – without doubt – the most experienced and knowledgeable in the industry, with many of them having over 100 expeditions in the ice of Antarctica.”
Most of the guidelines that the administration is calling for are already followed voluntarily by members of IAATO, of which Lindblad Expeditions is a long-standing member. IAATO members already limit landings to no more than 100 persons at a time, have at least one guide for every 20 tourists (although LEX operates with a ratio of 15:1), and do not allow ships with more than 500 passengers to land tourists.
LEX is the only IAATO member, however, that has called for even greater restrictions, urging that ships larger than 500 passengers should not be allowed to even access Antarctica waters at all for scenic “cruise-bys.” The company firmly believes that the dangers to new operators with less-experienced staff in this ice-filled and poorly-charted region could lead to potentially catastrophic human and environmental loss, especially with the comparatively weak construction of larger, non-ice-class vessels conducting scenic cruise-bys.
Through its years of operating in Antarctica, Lindblad Expeditions has been responsible for most of the guidelines already in place. Its VP of marine operations and master of the National Geographic Explorer, Captain Leif Skog, was the head of the marine committee for ten years and developed the safety and emergency procedures for IAATO vessels. Policies on tourist behavior and protection of wildlife were authored by LEX’s senior expedition leader Tom Ritchie, and today those policies are known as the “Lindblad Model” and form the basis of what all companies choose to follow. Subsequently, Lindblad expedition leader Matt Drennan initiated and wrote many of the site-specific guidelines, and additional site-specific guidelines were later authored by expedition leader Tim Soper.
Other steps that LEX uses to ensure safe navigation where official charts are often unreliable or completely un-surveyed include using its own data and soundings to produce its own charts and safe routes. This data is shared with the British Hydrographic Agency, and with four decades worth of data, it is not uncommon for its officers to have more data on the sea floor than government hydrographic agencies.
In addition, LEX has outfitted its new ice-strengthened expedition ship, the National Geographic Explorer, with the latest technology available. While every commercial ship operates with an echo-sounder that measures the water depth directly below the ship, the National Geographic Explorer is one of the very few ships equipped with a forward scanning SONAR. This device allows the captain and his officers to continually scan the seabed ahead of the ship, looking for any uncharted obstacles or shoals. In addition, during the rebuilding of the National Geographic Explorer, the ship’s hull was fitted with an “ice belt,” or a band of thicker steel to protect against ice impacts, and additional framing and steel added to further strengthen the hull. So extensive was the rebuilding that the hull is now rated DNV ICE-1A class, with much of it so heavily reinforced it is the equivalent of Super ICE-1A.
Lindblad Expeditions has also contributed to the science of Antarctica by supporting the non-profit organization Oceanites, which is carrying out the only non-government funded research in Antarctica. Two Oceanites scientists travel on every Lindblad Expeditions’ Antarctica sailing, and president of Oceanites Ron Naveen said: “Oceanites is in the forefront of Antarctica science regarding monitoring, global warming impacts, and penguin population changes. We’ve been able to maintain our work effort through the good graces of Lindblad Expeditions, the only company that carries working scientists – and an ongoing science project – on all its Antarctic departures.”
Ultimately, Sven Lindblad said: “With the tremendous growth of Antarctica tourism, and the corresponding number of accidents there, Lindblad Expeditions believes it is important for the entire industry, and not just a segment of it, to operate at the highest standards possible, with well-equipped, well-built ships and knowledgeable, experienced crews. I am confident in our ability and experience to test limits and give our guests an exciting expedition by taking them into the real teeth of Antarctica and also to get them back safely. It makes sense for everyone operating down there to be similarly confident, and we hope these guidelines are formalized.”