Penguins face 'tourist terror'

Posted: 16 July 2001

As tourism booms in the Antarctic, scientific opinion on the dangers to wildlife is divided. The disturbance caused to penguins by groups of tourists is one example of differing views.

The latest example of this comes from an Australian researcher who claims that tourists frequently frighten birds off their incubating eggs, or so increase the penguins' heartbeat that they are forced off their eggs to look for food to replenish their energy.

By contrast, Bernard Stonehouse, who leads the Polar Ecology and Management Group at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England, found that incubating penguins suffer no 'virtually no stress' as long as tourists keep to the prescribed five metres. (See: Antarctica report)

But according to Melissa Giese of the Australian Antarctic Division, some tourists do get closer than this. And she warns, any penguin that is sitting still in the snow will be incubating an egg - and will get off it if anyone approaches closer than 15 feet. That puts the embryo at risk.

What's more, as anyone approaches a penguin its heartbeat will rise massively. Left alone for weeks, in many cases, while its mate forages for food, the mother penguin may not be able to sit out too many episodes of a heart rate that is poised for flight.

Dr Giese, author of guidelines for tourist operators working in Antarctica, says that such guidelines are badly needed. Tourism is growing by 600 per cent per season, she says, as cruise ships gather round the south polar shores in summer. (In 1997 Stonehouse put the figure at 120 cruises a year, carrying some 9,000 tourists).

"Most people who go do want to get nice and close to the animals" she says. "They can suffer quite dramatic behavioural and physiological reactions to humans.". What's more, she told Tim Radford of The Guardian newspaper, "the industry is experiencing incredible growth, it is uncontrolled in terms of the numbers of operators, the numbers of tourists and the number of sites the tourists can go to. It is unpoliced. If they don't want to stick to the guidelines there is nobody there to watch them."

Some tour operators, she says, are doing a good job. "But some are pretty lousy, allowing people to go close to wildlife and turning a blind eye to people who collect bits and pieces."

Dr Geise is also concerned about the threat of an oil spill in the Antarctic and the potential for tourists to introduce and spread exotic diseases, which she says would be 'catastrophic'.

Source: The Guardian, May 18, 2000.