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Coming Antarctic Season 2010/11, the Last for Big Cruise Ships

Posted by Lindy on June 3, 2010

The Antarctica season beginning in November is likely to be the last one as it has been known. Proposed changes to the type of fuel ships are allowed to burn and carry in this fragile ecosystem have now become a reality, making the future of big cruise ships in Antarctica uncertain.

A rule was passed last year by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) banning the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils, the type of fuel commonly burned by big ships, in the Antarctic. The reasoning is that a spillage of this type of fuel is considered too much of a risk—and accidents do happen, as we witnessed in 2007, when Gap Adventures’ M/S Explorer was holed by ice and sank.

The deadline for the actual implementation of the new regulation was set for August 21, 2011, making the forthcoming Antarctic summer the last time some lines are likely to visit the region. So what does this really mean for cruise ships in the region?

Most small expedition-style ships are unaffected, as almost all of them run on marine gas oil and marine diesel oil, neither of which is included in the ban. However, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) predicts that the number of passengers on “seaborne” cruises—voyages on big ships that cruise the region but don’t land anywhere—could plummet from 14,350 this year to just 6,400 next year. Overall, the new rules could lead to a 23% decline in cruise tourism to Antarctica.

The problem facing the cruise lines is this: not only will ships be banned from using heavy fuel oil—but they won’t be allowed to carry it, either. Practically speaking, the former is possible to manage; it’s not uncommon for a ship to burn more economical, heavy oil for long sea passages and switch to a more expensive but less polluting fuel when nearer shorelines.

But, in Antarctica, the new rules on carriage would mean working out a complicated formula whereby all the “bad” fuel is used up before entering the area governed by the Antarctic Treaty (south of 60 degrees latitude) and “good” fuel is burned not only for the sailing in Antarctica, but the whole voyage back to South America, the nearest landfall and re-fuelling stop. Needless to say, “good” fuel is more expensive—a cost likely to be passed on to the passenger.

A few of the large carriers have said they will comply and continue operating there, but several say they cannot do so.

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