Tourists Not to Blame for Penguin Declines

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 13, 2012 10

Recent findings suggest that the decline in the number of chinstrap penguins is due to climate change, not tourists. ©Colin McNulty

As an ecotourist, you know that your travels can do a lot of good in the world. They can help boost the economies of local communities, fund preserves and deter poaching. You also know that your presence can sometimes be a detriment to the very lands and wildlife you wish to protect. It’s a fine line you walk, and a balance you keep in mind as a responsible world traveler.

So when good news comes out about the effects of our wanderings, we can’t help but be excited. Such a report was issued from the National Science Foundation last week. It turns out that climate change—not tourism as previously suspected—is driving the decline in Antarctica’s chinstrap penguin populations.

It’s the climate, not the company

Antarctic researchers work in harsh conditions: persistent clouds, precipitation and high winds—which sometimes reach gale force. ©Colin McNulty

On November 6, 2012, the National Science Foundation reported that as temperatures have rapidly warmed on the Antarctic Peninsula, the breeding population of chinstrap penguins has declined significantly. The findings were based on data collected in December 2011 on Deception Island, one of the busiest stops on Antarctica cruises.

Using the yacht Pelagic as a base of operations, researchers spent 12 days at Deception Island in harsh conditions: persistent clouds, precipitation and high winds that sometimes reached gale force. What they discovered was that two of the three predominant penguin species on the peninsula—chinstrap and Adelie—are declining significantly in a region where, in the last 60 years, it’s warmed 5 degrees Fahrenheit annually and 9 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.

The research team found 79,849 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins at Deception, including 50,408 breeding pairs at Baily Head on the west side of the island. Using a simulation designed to take into account uncertainty in an earlier population estimate, there was strong evidence to suggest a significant decline—greater than 50 percent—in the abundance of chinstraps breeding at Baily Head since 1986–87. And analyses of high-resolution satellite imagery for the 2002–03 and the 2009–10 seasons suggested a 39 percent decline during that seven-year period, providing independent confirmation of the population fall.

While it had been speculated that tourism was causing the negative impact on breeding chinstrap penguins, their diminished population at Baily Head is consistent with declines in this species throughout the region, including at sites that receive little or no tourism. In conclusion, then, if tourism is having a negative impact on these populations, it’s too small an effect to be detected against the background of climate change.

Should tourist numbers to Antarctica be limited in view of these new study results? ©Colin McNulty

In contrast, gentoo penguins are expanding both in numbers and in range. While the divergent responses for the two species of penguins are an ongoing focus of the research, the initial results are positive news for the ecotourism industry, as they indicate that global warming, rather than the numbers of human visitors, has had the greatest effect on the chinstrap population.

Is there a need to restrict visitors?

In 2009, safety fears and concerns about the impact travelers were having on the delicate frozen landscape caused signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, an agreement between 48 nations on the use of the continent, to set limits for the number of tourists permitted—although there are no legally binding rules for tourists in Antarctica. In 1992-93, visitors to Antarctica numbered 6,700. By 2009-10, they had risen to more than 40,000. The new rules asked that countries prevent ships with more than 500 passengers from landing on the continent and to only allow a maximum of 100 passengers on shore at any given time.

The economic downturn, however, has drastically reduced the number of visitors to Antarctica  in the past two years: the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) states that the total number of tourists to Antarctica during the 2010–11 season was 33,824; and in the 2011–2012 season, it was just 26,519. However, IAATO projects that the number of visitors traveling to Antarctica in 2012–2013 will rise to 34,950.

In light of these new findings regarding penguin populations—yet in the face of rising numbers of visitors forecast for next season—do you think it’s necessary to restrict the number of tourists to Antarctica?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Dyan deNapoli November 26, 2012 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Great article, Candice! In 2009, I had the great pleasure of visiting Antarctica as a penguin expert and guest lecturer on a small expedition vessel. It is indeed worth every uncomfortable minute of the dreaded Drake Passage crossing! And, though I was ecstatic to be there, I couldn’t help feeling that our very presence posed a risk to the penguins and marine environment – I kept thinking, ‘What would happen if there was an oil spill here?’ (Having been a member of the rescue team during the Treasure oil spill in South Africa, I know first-hand the devastating impact of oiling on penguins.)

    The question you raise is an important one – and has been addressed in part by the IAATO and IMO (International Maritime Organization). In 2011, they instituted a ban on large cruise ships – not necessarily to reduce tourist numbers, but due to the heavy marine oil they use as fuel, as it is more damaging to the environment. These large ships carry between 500 and 2000+ passengers, whereas most of the smaller expedition ships carry just 70-300 passengers (and they use a lighter fuel oil). This ban alone will greatly reduce the number of future tourists to Antarctica, and will also help decrease – but not eliminate – the likelihood of a major oil spill in the region. (Here’s a brief article about the ban: )

    One other note – during my Antarctic voyage, I was stunned to witness it raining during a visit to a Gentoo penguin colony at Port Lockroy. Until 25 years ago, rain had not been observed in Antarctica. Seeing hundreds of penguin chicks huddled and shivering in the rain was a sobering reminder of our impact on the planet. The most important thing we can do to help protect penguins and the environment is to reduce global warming. This issue – more than anything else – is the number one threat to penguins throughout the southern hemisphere, to our oceans, and to the environment in general. (I briefly address this topic in my book about the Treasure oil spill, The Great Penguin Rescue.)

    Thank you again for posing this thought-provoking question!


  2. Dirk November 22, 2012 at 6:48 am - Reply

    Well, Shirley, traveling is, on the other hand a (nice) doorway to other cultures, habitats, people. On the other hand, sustainable tourism can improve development of local economies in developing countries. WTO says that tourism is one of the last possibilities for some poor countries to achieve some goals in sustainable employment and local food markets.

  3. Candice Gaukel Andrews November 19, 2012 at 3:07 pm - Reply


    You can find contact information for the NSF regarding this report here:

    Thanks for writing.


  4. Natalie November 19, 2012 at 8:45 am - Reply

    Could you please provide a full citation of the study you’re referring to? Thanks!

  5. Sarah P. November 16, 2012 at 11:11 am - Reply

    Very interesting article! While current numbers of tourists are not having an impact on local populations, it may be useful to continue looking for or being aware of impact as visitor numbers continue trending upward in the future. Is there any data on how or whether tourism dollars to Antarctica contribute to research or conservation efforts?

  6. Vanessa November 15, 2012 at 4:28 am - Reply


  7. Dr.Jagdish Mittal November 15, 2012 at 2:52 am - Reply

    Certainly there must be check on the number of tourists . Only limited number of travelers should be allowed .

  8. Shirley November 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    Yes. But what about we take the lead and start limiting our own travel and telling people why. Not preaching, teaching by example.

  9. Lee Stanish November 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm - Reply

    This is an interesting discussion to have, although with no clear right answer. It’s important to allow people to experience Antarctic wildlife in order to more fully appreciate it, but with increasing numbers of tourists, the impact will only continue to increase. Direct impacts may not be measurable with the current number of tourists, but it is inevitable that unchecked growth will lead to measurable impacts, even if they arise from unforeseeable accidents. How far do we want to push before we start to see dramatic effects?

  10. James Suenson-Taylor November 13, 2012 at 11:21 am - Reply

    I was in Antarctica in January 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It was worth every minute of the seasickness suffered to get there! I would suggest that the Antarctic authorities get a grip on the visitor numbers because they are likely to increase over time. They should consider issuing permits as they do on Galapagos as a way to control visitor numbers and generate some income for research and conservation.

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