Managing ecotourism on Heard Island

King penguins on a beach in front of derelict buildings and blubber pots.
King penguins preen amongst the relics of human occupation on Heard Island. (Photo: Matt Curnock)
Three small rubber boats ferry tourists to the shores of Heard Island.

Ecotourism has escalated in the last decade as more people seek exotic locations in which to spend their recreational time and increase their ecological understanding of the world.

The phenomenon divides those responsible for the management of these exotic, often threatened, natural environments, into those who fear the impacts that increased tourist numbers have on these remote environments, and those who embrace the opportunities – such as the ability to develop strong community advocacy for the ongoing role management plays in protecting such special places.

Among the destinations that have captured ecotourists’ imaginations is Heard Island, managed on behalf of the Australian Government by the Australian Antarctic Division. As one of the most remote, non-populated locations on earth, the issues associated with managing ecotourism risks are complicated. At this stage, the number of visitors is comparatively low. Sea travel remains the only viable method of accessing the island, and the 8–10 day sail in often hostile oceanic conditions deters most commercial operators, reducing the need for active management.

However, Heritage Expeditions from New Zealand, has made Heard Island a tourist destination twice in the last 10 years. The latest trip left Fremantle on 8 November 2012 and returned to Albany, Western Australia some 24 days later (see next story). The voyage enabled the Australian Antarctic Division to test its capacity to deal effectively with the risks of tourism in this pristine and dynamic environment, and to test quarantine restrictions that form the basis of biosecurity measures used for more complex scientific expeditions to the territory.

The 2002 Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) Marine Reserve Management Plan, which is currently being updated by the Australian Antarctic Division, provides administrative interpretation to legislation that protects the HIMI Marine Reserve. The document sets out the Antarctic Division’s expectations for tourism operators, or any other visitor. Through a permit system, stipulating adherence to this document, visitors are bound to implement the conditions of entry.

The requirements aim to minimise the impact of visitation. Primary focus is given to implementing strict quarantine controls that have been developed over the past 10–15 years by the Antarctic Division to prevent the introduction of alien species to the Reserve’s pristine environment. These controls are underpinned by scientific research carried out as part of the International Polar Year Aliens in Antarctica project.

Protective measures include the placement of rat guards on all vessel berthing ropes while they are in port prior to departure; monitoring of the vessel for signs of rodents; vacuuming of clothing, day packs and equipment taken ashore; restriction on the types of foods that can be taken ashore; and the cleaning and sterilisation of boots as people disembark.

But how can management be sure that operators are undertaking all that is required to protect the environment?

Written into the Management Plan is the discretionary appointment of an onboard Inspector – someone appointed on behalf of the Antarctic Division to ensure compliance with the issued permit, and to provide educational support to the tourist groups, explaining the significance of maintaining a near-pristine environment.

The inspector’s role is critical to maintaining the biosecurity barrier that is naturally formed by the island’s remote location. As Inspector for the 2012 voyage, I was able to monitor the biosecurity operations undertaken by Heritage Expeditions and involve myself in the educational aspects of the process.

This process involves building up the layers of knowledge amongst expeditioners. It begins with introductory lectures about the impact of introduced species on island communities, highlighting the expensive lessons that have been learnt from past biosecurity transgressions (such as on Macquarie Island). It progresses to pre-disembarkation briefings and clothing inspections. Expeditioners are immersed into a world where the expectations of maintaining biosecurity vigilance becomes second nature – one of the few advantages to spending so much time at sea prior to arrival.

In 2002, on their last voyage to Heard Island, Heritage Expeditions allowed me, as the appointed Inspector, to run the first pilot of the biosecurity process on a tourist vessel. The pilot was part of a scientific study to identify the primary pathways for alien species introduction into the Antarctic region. The study, led by Australian Antarctic Division Principal Research Scientist Dr Dana Bergstrom, was the precursor of the international Aliens in Antarctica project. Information collected during these early studies led to the development of biosecurity procedures that were later adopted by IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tourist Operators) and are now implemented by most vessels operating in the Antarctic area. As such, Heritage Expeditions has been an advocate of the biosecurity process, making the role of the inspector considerably easier than it might otherwise have been.

The result for the 2012 tourist voyage was a landing at one of the most amazing, pristine places on the planet, where all participants could rest easy in the knowledge that the greatest impact they will have left on the ground was the impression left by their feet.

Kate Kiefer
Australian Antarctic Division