Expedition cruise lines that sail in Antarctica are enforcing stricter precautions against the growing threat of avian flu this winter amid concerns that passengers could be stopped from going ashore to prevent cross-contamination.
Scientists warn that the H5N1 virus will wreak a deadly toll across the continent’s vast penguin colonies if it gains a foothold, and they fear migrating birds from South America – which has already been badly hit by bird flu – will spread the disease as the austral summer approaches.
This also coincides with the main Southern Hemisphere cruise season, which runs from November to March, when more than 60 ships are expected to cross the Drake Passage to visit the Antarctic Peninsula.
Sailings to the region have boomed in recent years, fuelled by a new generation of modern expedition ships built to withstand extreme conditions, and rising demand from travellers eager to explore this pristine but inhospitable wilderness.
However, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s head of polar regions, Dr Jane Rumble, warned in an exclusive interview with the Telegraph that if the worst-case scenario arose, cruise passengers may not be allowed to land.
“They will keep everybody on-board or just do Zodiac cruising,” she said. “Tourists might not necessarily have the holiday they expected.”
Cruise lines and organisations would not be drawn on the implications of this, though the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which most expedition cruise companies belong to, tightened up its biosecurity protocols governing members last winter.
Procedures have included assessing landing sites for signs of bird flu, not going ashore if they are present, and leaving if any behavioural signs become apparent. Cruise passengers are told not to sit, kneel or lie down on the ground, or leave any equipment, close to animal activity.
Visitors are also instructed to maintain a minimum distance of five metres between themselves and wildlife wherever possible.
Martin Johnson, chairman and co-founder of UK-based Expedition Cruise Network, which represents many of the leading adventure lines, travelled to Antarctica with member line Ponant last winter and stressed how seriously it was taking biosecurity measures.
“These ranged from thorough cleaning and disinfecting of boots and trouser legs every time we disembarked and embarked the ship to strict adherence of not putting anything on the ground during landings,” he explained.
IAATO confirmed that the additional robust procedures it introduced last season had since evolved and were mandatory for all IAATO companies and their staff operating in Antarctica.
The association’s operations and government affairs director and deputy executive director, Lisa Kelley, said: “IAATO’s protocols will evolve as more information becomes available or if HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) presents.
“Scientists have shared that HPAI will arrive in Antarctica this year and, in line with our protocols, IAATO operators are prepared to cancel or leave landings where signs of HPAI are identified or suspected.
“Avian influenza is a great concern to the polar community,” she added. “Our members are united in their commitment to operate in the region safely and with environmental responsibility at the heart of all expeditions.”
This winter, IAATO estimates that more than 117,000 people will visit Antarctica on its member lines. Of that total, nearly 40,000 will be on cruise-only expeditions that will not stop in the region.
Under strict rules governing cruise operations in Antarctica, ships carrying more than 500 passengers are not permitted to make landings, so guests can admire the scenery and the experience, but do not leave their ship during sailings.
Smaller vessels carrying 500 passengers or less are allowed to land passengers, but have to abide by strict rules that only permit 100 guests to go ashore at any one time.