Brian Witte  /  AP
Antarctica's coast thaws out and is dotted with icebergs during its December-February summer when the weather can get above freezing, opening up the coastline to cruise ships.
updated 9/7/2006 11:36:39 AM ET 2006-09-07T15:36:39

A big cruise ship due to sail Antarctic waters next January will change the face of tourism in one of the world's great wilderness areas, a New Zealand polar academic said Thursday.

The Golden Princess, due to make a three-week voyage through the islands, straits and channels of the Antarctic Peninsula, is 10 times bigger than cruise ships now plying Antarctica's waters, and can carry 3,700 passengers and crew.

"It's evidence of the changing structure of the Antarctic tourism industry as it moves away from smaller vessels toward much larger vessels," Alan Hemmings, a polar policy specialist at Canterbury University, told New Zealand's National Radio.

The ship's 21-day voyage crests an eight-year surge in visitors to Antarctica that has quadrupled the number of tourists.

In the 2006-2007 tourist season, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators expected at least 28,000 people would make trips to the frozen continent. Auckland University researcher Maj de Poorter said there were also likely to be as many as 10,000 scientists.

How to deal with a disaster?
Hemmings said that if the tourist ship sank, rescuers in the remote region would be overwhelmed.

"If anything happens to it we will have horrendous problems providing search and rescue and getting people ashore somewhere ... and even if they got ashore at some Antarctic station this (number) would be so far beyond the capacity of even that Antarctic station," Hemmings said.

Julie Benson, a spokesman for California-based Princess Cruises, said passengers aboard the 950 foot Golden Princess would "absolutely not" be exposed to any risk, and the ship was fully equipped for the journey. Passengers would not step foot on Antarctica.

Hemmings said the ship is registered in Bermuda which "is not any kind of party to the Antarctic Treaty system which establishes what rules relating to the environment are in place."

With the ship sailing from the United States, he hoped U.S. authorities would require an environmental impact assessment to be carried out.

Invaders in ship hulls
Invasive species were already established in the frozen continent, and Antarctica New Zealand environmental manager Neil Gilbert said ships, including cruise vessels, "are great vectors for moving species round the planet."

Unwanted species hitch rides on ships' hulls and are often dumped out in ballast water, as well as latching onto everything from footwear and machinery to camping gear.

Poa annua grass has already become established on King George Island and North Atlantic spider crabs are in Antarctic Peninsula waters, he said.

"Part of the problem is we don't really know how, we don't have enough data at the moment ... to give us a very good indication of what sort of species are being transported into the Antarctic and neither do we know what their survivability is like once they are in the Antarctic," he said.

Gilbert said much more research is needed to define the problem.

The issue of nonnative species was "now on the agenda" of the Antarctic Treaty's committee for environmental protection, he added.

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