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As TikToks about Antarctic tourism go viral, some worry about the environmental costs

"The voyage there should tell them they ain't wanted," one TikTok user said of the treacherous Drake Passage, which is the "gateway" to Antarctica.
A ship in Antarctica on Dec. 18, 2019.
The number of tourists to Antarctica between 2015 and 2020 doubled, the science site Inverse reported, and unless research stations and  travel companies move away from using fossil fuel, the pollution will only get worse.Zheng Xianzhang / VCG via Getty Images file

Videos showing the turbulent journey to Antarctica have taken off on TikTok in recent weeks, with multiple creators sharing footage of their boat rides through the Drake Passage.

But why does it seem like so many travel vloggers are suddenly visiting Antarctica?

The Drake Passage is the body of water between the southernmost tip of Chile and Antarctica's northern peninsula. Travel company Oceanwide Expeditions describes the Drake Passage as a "lively little waterway" and the "gateway to the Antarctic."

Depending on the weather and other seasonal conditions, passengers can experience the "Drake Lake," a placid, smooth journey, or the perilous "Drake Shake." Last week, a "rogue wave" left one cruise ship passenger dead and four injured.

Despite the dangers, travel content about Antarctica is gaining popularity on TikTok.

In a video about crossing the Drake Passage posted last week, vlogger Natasha Alden showed viewers clips of waves crashing against her cabin windows and passengers "holding on for dear life" at the ship's breakfast buffet. The video has 12.6 million views.

Earlier this week, travel influencer Alyssa Ramos posted a video captioned, "Why is the Drake Passage so dangerous?" The TikTok, which now has over 3 million views, showed Ramos sliding back and forth on the deck of a boat as waves crashed against the vessel.

Then, in a video posted Wednesday, TikTok creator Jordan Newton vlogged her Antarctic ice camping experience. The video has nearly 1 million views.

Many TikTok users expressed fascination with the Antarctic travel content, but were also perplexed with the sudden influx of videos about visiting the largely barren continent.

"Was there like a groupon to the drake passage or something," one TikTok user commented on Ramos' video.

Another user commented on Newton's video about ice camping: "It’s getting to the point where I’m having dreams about the Drake Passage every night because I’m so deeply on Antarctica tok."

Responding to comments asking why "literally everyone is in Antarctica right now," Alden explained that the season to safely travel there is "relatively short." In the Southern Hemisphere, around the end of October to early November the "sea ice opens up just enough to allow ships to navigate safely," she said. The warm season wraps in early March.

"Then it's winter time again, and the average winter temperature at the South Pole is -49 C," Alden continued.

Ramos offered a different explanation in a video posted Thursday. Antarctic tour companies are targeting travel influencers "for the first time in history," she said, to host group trips and promote traveling to the continent.

"This comes as a shock to me because three years ago, they told me they didn't want to work with me because their demographic was older, mostly male and retired couples," Ramos said. "So now that we have all our guests coming, we have lowered the age demographic down and I have now hosted over 100 mostly women in Antarctica, who all have social media — which is why you're probably seeing it all over."

Ramos elaborated on her video in a message to NBC News. She said she’s worked with Quark Expeditions, Albatross Expeditions and most recently, Chimu Adventures.

The recent trip she planned with Chimu Adventures costs between $8,230 to $11,755 per person, according to her blog post. In a video posted earlier this year, Ramos said she was paid $45,000 in commission to “get people to sign up” for an excursion. Ramos said that she keeps returning to Antarctica because it's the most "high in demand group trip" that she hosts with followers.

"Antarctica travel companies are finally seeing the value in social media influencers and the millennial demographic," she said in her message.

When the pandemic started, the companies' target demographic stopped traveling, but "millennials on the contrary started almost revenge traveling," Ramos said, as well as investing "more in travel than settling down first."

"It's been shocking for the polar tourism industry," Ramos continued.

In wake of the influx of travel content about Antarctica, some on TikTok have raised concerns over the environmental impact of Antarctic tourism.

A report posted in "Nature Communications" this year found that the black carbon content — soot from vehicles, power generators and other machinery — is higher in snow surrounding research facilities and "popular shore tourist-landing sites" than levels measured "elsewhere in the continent."

The researchers estimated snow around research and tourist sites is melting faster and in larger quantities than snow that isn't located in those areas.

The number of tourists to Antarctica between 2015 and 2020 doubled, the science site Inverse reported, and unless research stations and travel companies move away from using fossil fuel, the pollution will only get worse.

My view of all of these subjects has drastically changed me and will help me to become a better activist for such important environmental concerns. Visiting Antarctica was actually life changing for me.

-TikTok creator Jordan Newton

Another study published in "Antarctic Science" this year found that tourists "could be disturbing" the penguins on one of the continent's most popular islands. Human presence may cause penguins to be scared, distracted and temporarily abandon their chicks and eggs.

“We need the world’s social and ecological scientists to collaborate to further examine whether tourism is threatening the Antarctic,” the study's co-author Yu-Fai Leung said in a North Carolina State University press release.

In a message to NBC News, Newton said that staff members of Intrepid Travel, the company that organized her ice camping trip, “did an outstanding job to leave as little of a trace in Antarctica as possible.”

“Every piece of clothing we were going to wear was inspected by a staff member to ensure no fibers or fabric could be left behind,” Newton said. “They would not allow everything to go with us on land, and we also had to sanitize everything that would touch the ground, i.e. shoes, hiking poles, etc.”

The ship also had daily lectures about wildlife, climate change and ongoing research studies on the continent, Newton said.

“My view of all of these subjects has drastically changed me and will help me to become a better activist for such important environmental concerns,” Newton said. “Visiting Antarctica was actually life changing for me.”

Ramos said that "Antarctic tourism has been happening for decades," but it wasn't as widely shared on social media. She added that a portion of tourism profits is allocated for funding research and conservation.

"I would say the new social media popularity is helping to raise awareness on how to help preserve this beautiful content and its wildlife," she said.

Some on TikTok have still spoken out about portraying Antarctica as a tourist destination.

In a post responding to Ramos' video about the Drake Passage, TikTok creator jijis.m0m showed screenshots of articles about pollution in Antarctica.

"the voyage there should tell them they ain’t wanted," they said in a comment, referring to the treacherous waters.