Safeguarding The Antarctic: An Interview With Expeditioner Kelvin Murray

Kelvin Murray, veteran expedition leader and former manager of the British Antarctic Survey, speaks to Nice Rice about combatting ocean waste and ensuring environmental stewardship of one of the world’s most precious regions

Marine plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time. Images of polar bears on littered Arctic beaches or footage of the Pacific Trash Vortex – the vast swirling stew of plastic stretching from the West Coast of North America to Japan – are visceral reminders of the degradation enacted on the planet.

In January 2017, the UN Environment launched The Clean Seas Campaign (#CleanSeas) with the aim of engaging governments, the general public, civil society and the private sector in the fight against marine plastic litter. The campaign will address the root-cause of marine litter by targeting the production and consumption of non-recoverable and single-use plastic.

The problem of marine pollution is seen in the most dramatic relief in Antarctica and the Arctic. Polar tourism is an increasingly popular sector and the fleet of touring vessels will double in the next two years. In order to maintain the integrity of the regions, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) are working closely with tourism stakeholders to encourage and enforce sustainable practices, ensuring these practically pristine environments remain uncompromised.

Working alongside cruise and tourism firms, such as the market leader EYOS Expeditions, AECO and IAATO promote the safe and environmentally responsible private-sector travel and ensure the growing tourism industry is contributing to sustainable development in the regions.

Kelvin Murray is a member of Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS), a former manager of the British Antarctic Survey and a qualified survival and marine instructor with expertise in extreme environments. He has led exploratory diving expeditions throughout Svalbard, the world’s largest fjord system in East Greenland and the Antarctic wildlife paradise of South Georgia.

In an exclusive interview with Nick Rice, Murray discusses the measures in place to combat ocean waste and the tourism activities, such as beach clean ups, that ensure good environmental stewardship.

Tourism in Antarctica and the Arctic must be carefully scrutinised and meticulously managed, how important is membership of AECO and IAATO?

I sit on three committees with IAATO and another three with AECO – the Arctic counterpart. It’s a collective hive mind of experience throughout the expedition industry that is helping to govern how are all of us are conducting our activities – the mind being that we want to be self-regulating, proactive and continually environmentally responsible.

Kelvin Murray

What measures are in place to handle the growth in the polar tourism industry?

There is set to be another 23 or 24 vessels to come on line in the next two years, so there will be that additional load and that will require more clever scheduling and the utilisation of less visited areas to spread that load, but regardless, there is still only a certain number of people who can set foot on certain sites per day. It doesn’t matter how many ships are floating around, if that site has reached its quota for the day, that’s it.

Is there a misperception that polar tourism is a small number of wealthy people playing around with penguins?

One of the main things that IAATO and AECO try to encourage is that whenever someone comes on a trip, they leave as an ambassador for Antarctica and for the Arctic. They are leaving being enriched by the experience to such a degree that they want to do something about it to preserve it.

There is this idea that tourists are running around and scaring penguins but it’s not the case at all. It’s very well-managed and controlled and through the tour prices that they are paying, they are making a small contribution to the coffers of IAATO and AECO, which is then going on to represent the industry at this higher-level and help dictate policy – all with the mind of keeping this sustainable and for future generations.

We’d be slitting our own throats if we didn’t respect where we are. When you get down there you understand that it’s this pristine wilderness and it has to be preserved.

IAATO and IAECO are very proactive in discussing the new guidelines that are coming up with new ways to have a minor or transitory effect on the places that they visit – it’s an important founding principle of these organisations.

What evidence of plastic pollution is there in the polar regions?

In Antarctica, there has been micro plastics detected in the water column. Controversially it’s very different in the Arctic. There are some places very far north, at 79° or 80° north, the likes of Svalbard, where you are finding a great deal of plastic pollution lying on the beaches. It’s quite a distressing thing. And we do know that it has an impact on the wildlife. For example, we found intertwined skulls of reindeer with their antlers tangled up in fishing net.

Why is the impact more severe in the Arctic?

There are more industrialised nations up in the northern hemisphere, and the way that wind and water currents work, a lot of things are being pushed north and found on these very remote locations at high latitudes.

What measures are being taken within the expedition tourism industry to protect the environment?

We have campaigns such as ‘Clean-up Svalbard,’ which is supported by AECO and its members, where tourists on a trip will do a voluntary beach clean. Recently AECO was awarded a very substantial piece of funding [$308,000] to further support member involvement in the UN Clean Seas campaign. There is also a lot of citizen science taking place on different vessels, where members of the public are being encouraged to participate in sea ice studies and counting populations of wildlife and some plastics work as well.

Photo credit: Oceanwide Expeditions

Do you find that the industrial sector is relentlessly targeting these relatively pristine areas?

I can completely understand why a nation would want to tap into its natural resources… you know there’s a great deal of wealth to be made. But at the same time, it’s a very vulnerable environment. Recently we’ve had the polar code come into force, which is determining various different standards on how vessels should be built. How they should be run and what they can do with their discharges, how the crew should be trained, about survival equipment and about emergency response – all kinds of things for a vessel operating in polar waters. So, that’s a big step forward in trying to reduce the risk of anything going badly wrong.

We’re not operating near any liquid natural gas [LNG] plants or mining areas where they’re taking core material out of the ground but I understand why it’s going on. The world is energy hungry. It’s a bit like tourism – if this has got to be done, and it will be done, it’s far better that it’s done safely and responsibly. I’d love to see a greater emphasis on wind, solar and renewables but big business doesn’t necessarily see things the same way.

Photo by Ilja Leo Lang-AECO

What is the future for fuel in your industry?

There’s a lot of interest in not having to burn so much fuel, because it’s expensive, especially if you’re going long distances. I know that some companies are looking at LNG technology and hydrogen fuel cells, some are looking at battery technology and so on. So, there is a desire for efficiency coupled with meeting an endurance need. Down in the Antarctic there’s a ban on heavy fuel oil and although there isn’t a ban on it in the Arctic, there is a lot of talk around that because of the impact that would cause should there be a spill.

There is the risk of spill and also there’s the impact of black carbon [the sooty black material emitted when fossil fuels are burned].

I was invited to speak at the Arctic Council earlier this year in Quebec and there was a lot of talk there about heavy fuel oil. It mainly comes from commercial shipping. The tourist vessels that are operating down in the Antarctic spend their northern summer season up in the Arctic and none of them are operating on heavy fuel oil – they are all on Marine diesel with a low sulphur content. AECO would support a ban on heavy fuel oil in the Arctic but it’s a small aspect of Arctic shipping. There is a far, far greater fleet out there from commercial interests and so on – they’re the ones that really need to be looking at their emissions.

In response, there is the polar code and additional legislation brought in by other nations that are embracing the polar code and extending it and its philosophy. The polar code was established to address the fact that this is a vulnerable environment and in time it’s thought that the polar code will apply to super yachts and fishing vessels and anybody sailing in polar water.

Can you foresee a time soon where renewable energy will take market share in the world?

I think we’re seeing some really good examples these days of how it can happen. We hear of cities or whole countries that run for a day or a period of time, completely on renewable energy. I think that the increase in our technological prowess in these areas is only going to increase. Things become cheaper and more efficient and also people want to be doing the right thing.  There is an ever-increasing sense of moral duty. I’m a bit of an idealist but I do think that the tide is turning.

I can’t envision exactly how it looks but the mere fact that people are willing to take a chance on new technologies and to develop things and constantly tinker and improve and adjust is a good thing. Whether it’s in the slightly more mercenary attitude of ‘this will save me more money,’ or whether it’s for the good of the planet, it doesn’t really matter. It’s what we instil in our children now that will have an impact.


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