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Tourism at Palmer Station

U.S. research base welcomes visitors throughout summer season

 

The job description term “other duties as assigned” takes on a different meaning at Palmer Station.

For Jon Brack that means he moves cargo from Point A to Point B — part of his regular job — and serves as the fire marshal for one of several emergency teams. On Saturday afternoon, with the rest of the support personnel and scientists, he takes his turn as a janitor in the ritual known as house mouse, cleaning the station.

Then there’s playing tour guide to the more than 1,000 visitors who stop by the U.S. Antarctic Program’s smallest research station each year.

“I don’t mind it all. I definitely understand the importance of outreach and giving tours, and seeing people so excited to see what we’re doing and asking great questions,” says Brack, part of the two-person logistics team at Palmer during the summer season, which lasts roughly from September to April.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) allows up to 12 tourist ships to visit the station, located on Anvers Island on the northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula. Generally, they carry anywhere from 80 passengers to more than 1,000 people. Smaller private yachts and sailboats also make the pilgrimage to the region.

The location is a hotspot for wildlife, where Adélie penguins mate and defend their downy chicks against opportunistic brown skuas, while monstrous elephant seals play the marine mammals’ version of sumo wrestling only a few minutes’ boat ride away from the station. Giant petrels placidly squat on their single brood on nests made of small rocks or limpet shells.

Of course, there are certainly other places to see such displays of Mother Nature in all her polar splendor. But few also offer the opportunity to see a real Antarctic research station. Palmer supports a variety of science programs, most focused on the marine ecosystem.

“I get more involved and interested in the science here by explaining that to other people, by sharing it with other people,” says Bob DeValentino, the other half of the Palmer logistics team, who also serves as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) when company comes calling.

January is the tourist peak, and it is not unusual for shiploads of passengers to disembark at Palmer Station on consecutive days via inflatable boats called Zodiacs. Add the smaller yachts — which the NSF does not cap but does ask to schedule their visits in advance — and some days turn into a nonstop tour. Hero Inlet, where the station pier is located, has seen several small sailboats tied up at one time.

Most everyone at the station pitches in when the tourists come ashore. Some are tour guides, navigating groups of bundled up guests along the wooden boardwalk that connects the station’s main buildings. A popular stop is the station’s small store, which stocks such things as T-shirts and fleeces and stickers with various station and USAP logos.

The tours end in the Palmer dining hall, which is temporarily rearranged into a reception area where station residents mingle with their guests, answering the usual range of questions: Where are you from? What do you do here? What’s it like to live and work here? Tea and coffee are available, as well as chewy chocolate brownies, popular enough to garner a mention in Lonely Planet’s Antarctica guidebook.

And you never know just who is going to show up at the front door.

This year, both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the NASA Apollo 11 astronauts who were the first people to walk on the moon, visited on separate vessels. On the cruise ship Ushuaia, a class from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., pulled out video cameras to interview scientists and personnel for a class project.

Canadian Wendy Nelson, a guest aboard perhaps the most well known of the Antarctic tour ships, the National Geographic Explorer, says while chatting in the dining hall that the station facilities are amazing. What brought her to the white continent? “Just because it’s there,” she says enthusiastically.

Dianne Smith, the administrative coordinator for the station, probably interacts the most with the tourists. She runs the store and is the point person for the small groups that arrive on the private yachts and sailboats. In one week, she may greet a group of tall Europeans from the Czech Republic or a small French family on a four-year sailing trip around the world.

“It’s really interesting. It’s one-on-one, with all of these people throughout the world,” she says. “They all have lives and stories and families they share with you.”

The large cruise ships — carrying hundreds, if not thousands of passengers — are too big to unload passengers here. Instead, station personnel go to them, zipping out to the cruise liners on Zodiacs.

Brack says those ships, where Antarctica is more like a movie just going by the porthole, is where he meets the most excited visitors.

“We’re rock stars. They can’t believe we’re real Antarcticans. We pull up out of the fog on Zodiacs. They can’t see station, and so here we come out of the haze, with our bright orange coats, and we’re Shackleton’s kin,” he says.

Adds Station Manager Rebecca Shoop, “That’s really a big part of our outreach. We can hit a lot of people with the large cruise ships.”

Aboard those floating cities, station personnel present a 20-minute slideshow to passengers, followed by a Q&A on science and society in the Antarctic. Bright-eyed passengers aren’t shy about mingling after the presentation, thirsty for details about a place that only an hour before was just another abstract stop on their itinerary.

Shoop says tourism outreach at Palmer has evolved over the last 20 years, as the NSF recognized both the value bringing awareness of the Antarctic program to visitors, especially U.S. taxpayers, and ensuring that it doesn’t disrupt the station’s primary mission to support science.

“They know we spend a lot of time doing outreach,” Shoop says. “We need to keep our structure intact — do the outreach but not bend over backwards to accommodate it. It sometimes gets a little tricky.”

In addition, the National Geographic ship often carries scientists with the Oceanites Inc., a group led by Ron Naveen and funded by the NSF for seabird census work. The Spirit of Sydney, an expedition yacht that regularly cruises to Palmer Station, has supported whale research in the past and collaborated with station personnel on sending science samples back to the United States, according to Shoop.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), a trade organization that represents most of the touring companies, tracks the number of visitors, ships and crew going to Antarctica each year. The trend has mainly been on an upward swing, and Shoop noted that the tourist season now extends from mid-November to the first week in March. That’s about a couple of months longer than just five years ago, she says.

However, the worldwide recession may be taking a toll.

In 2008-09, IAATO reported a total of 37,858 tourists, down significantly from the year before at 46,069. The numbers at Palmer Station from IAATO similarly declined — 1,016 last year and 1,304 the year before. Those numbers don’t reflect all of the smaller vessels or the offshore visits by station personnel to the larger cruise ships.

Tough economic times may not be the only obstacle that slows down tourism here.

In the last year, during a highly publicized meeting of the Antarctic Treaty countries that manage the continent, policy makers called for limits on the number of tourist ships, for fortified hulls that can withstand sea ice and for a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils. A ban on heavy oil, which is expected to be adopted by the International Maritime Organization later this year, would effectively block big cruise ships, according to a recent New York Times story.

Despite the uncertainty ahead for tourism in Antarctica, Palmer Station personnel expect they’ll still need to bake plenty of those yummy brownies each summer season.

That’s OK with Jon Brack.

“It feels good to have people thank you for what you do,” he says.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs