I used to be a penguin biologist. It was my dream job at the time. I studied Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins on Signy Island, part of the South Orkney Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula, for a National Antarctic Programme to investigate how their breeding and foraging patterns altered in response to changes in food supply.

I lived with no more than seven other people at a time for six or seven months each year, sometimes spending days on my own in a tiny field hut. We felt wonderfully isolated and privileged to be living in a place teeming with delightful wildlife and achingly beautiful scenery. Learning about the busy lives of breeding penguins made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

I was proud to be part of an international scientific community doing research in stations and field camps across the vast continent. Occasionally I would start at the sudden appearance of a fishing vessel off the island because I was so unaccustomed to seeing any other signs of human life. I gave very little thought to tourism. At that time, tourist vessels did not come near our little island and I was only vaguely aware of their presence in other parts of the continent.

I was therefore apprehensive when I was offered a job studying penguins at a historic site farther down the Antarctic Peninsula, now managed by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, that did receive visitors - thousands every season.

I understood tourism to be a legitimate activity under the Antarctic Treaty System but knew very little about it. I was concerned that the operators and their clients might not care about Antarctica’s special environment and wildlife as I did. I even wondered if tourism should be allowed at all.

But what I saw was a revelation. I remember smiles, warmth and wonder. I was impressed by each visitor’s sense of awe at what they were seeing and experiencing. I marvelled at the professionalism of the ships’ crews and staff, their great knowledge and attention to the smallest operational details to support safety and environmental care.

This was my introduction to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), an association founded in 1991 to advocate and promote safe and environmentally responsible Antarctic travel. Everyone, from crew to staff to visitor, was - and is - subject to a strict code of conduct that seeks to mitigate the potential impact and keep Antarctica pristine for generations to come.

Back then, as a government scientist, I had to spend a portion of my time communicating my work to the public who were funding it. I enjoyed that immensely, but it was a challenge explaining the significance of Antarctica to someone who may never see it. In comparison, talking about the White Continent to someone experiencing its raw beauty first-hand is easy.

IAATO operators include in their itineraries workshops, seminars and lectures which are delivered by a range of experts. Visitors can participate in science, art or photography programmes, or engage with scientists at stations or field sites. Time is also allowed to observe and soak up the incredible surroundings, sometimes noisy, sometimes deafeningly quiet. It was a community I wanted to be involved in and I’m proud to now work for IAATO, helping its members fulfil their mission and achieve their vision of creating a corps of ambassadors for Antarctica’s continued protection by providing enriching, educational and environmentally sensitive journeys to the White Continent.

The desire to visit Antarctica continues to grow, presenting challenges and opportunities for the Antarctic Treaty parties who manage human activity in Antarctica. Meeting the obligation to protect the continent and fulfilling the needs of those who wish to visit, work or fish there, takes collaboration and cooperation on a grand scale.

If you’re planning a trip or thinking of visiting Antarctica with an IAATO operator, you can be confident that your visit will meet and exceed requirements for safe, environmentally responsible travel. However, you must also do your part in ensuring that your presence has only a fleeting impact on the environment there. Although you’ll be sent pre-departure information about your obligations, do as much as you can to understand them before you go. Scrub all your equipment and clothing to avoid introducing non-native species, and listen carefully to your guides and the briefings.

Above all, savour your experience. Watch, listen and smell. Be still. We all have a responsibility to care for Antarctica, but none more so than those lucky enough to experience it first-hand. This extraordinary continent is worth conserving for its unique wildlife and incredible landscapes. But it is also crucial as an engine of ocean and climate systems that sustain us all. Perhaps, as I did, you might make a pledge to a passing penguin about how you will take action for our planet, even if it is simply to stay informed and spread the word.

About the author

Responsible tourism in Antarctica

Amanda Lynnes

Amanda is Head of communications and environment at the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Her Antarctic career began in 1996 with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as a penguin biologist and field assistant for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

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