Minimising the disturbance to Antarctic wildlife

The number of people travelling to Antarctica is growing, with much of the recent increase in visitor numbers attributable to an expansion in commercial tourism. It has been estimated that by 2010 as many as 1.5 million commercial tourists could be visiting the region each year (Coughlan 1998), compared to the 12–14,000 that currently travel there annually. Most visitors to Antarctica seek direct interactions with the wildlife and so visit breeding groups of seals and seabirds. Invariably this involves travelling to wildlife breeding sites by helicopter, zodiac or over-snow vehicle, and then making relatively close approaches on foot to photograph and observe the animals.

The sheer number of people likely to travel to Antarctica over the next decade, and their emphasis on visiting wildlife, has highlighted the need for information that can generate practical guidelines to minimise disturbance to breeding animals. As such, the AAD’s Human Impacts Research Program is investigating the responses of a range of wildlife species to various human activities associated with tourism and expedition operations. The overall aim of the research is to make quality information available for the development of a comprehensive and scientifically based set of guidelines for managing interactions between people and wildlife in Antarctica.

The research adopts an experimental approach, whereby animals are exposed to controlled human activity while their responses to that activity are objectively measured. Experiments are statistically designed and incorporate high levels of replication to maximise the likelihood of detecting the effects of human activity should they be present. Wildlife response to disturbance is quantified on the basis of a number of parameters, including reproductive success, behaviour and physiology. As such, we hope to address both short-term transient and long-term irreversible effects of disturbance.

Building on initial studies that investigated the minimal approach distances suitable for people visiting breeding Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae), the work has more recently quantified the responses of penguins and surface-nesting petrels to over-flights by helicopters. Results obtained to date have formed the basis of new, more conservative AAD guidelines for people approaching penguin colonies on foot and for helicopters flying over concentrations of breeding seabirds. In addition to being formalised as changes to AAD policy, findings are being disseminated through a variety of media, including tourism newsletters, videos, posters and pamphlets. Other Antarctic Treaty nations, and to a lesser extent commercial tour companies, are readily adopting the recommendations arising from the research and are increasingly looking to the AAD for policy advice and opportunities to collaborate on similar work into the future.

During the 2000–2001 summer we expanded the program further and began a multi-year project investigating the responses of Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) to human activity. In keeping with our previous studies, the Weddell seal program employs controlled, field-based experiments to quantify the effects of actual disturbances to which the seals are presently exposed. The types of stimuli being investigated include approaches by people on foot, and also quad, Hägglunds and helicopter operations. Once again the overall aim is to produce information suitable for the development of practical, well-supported guidelines.

As part of the Weddell seal project, we are also recording the sound generated under the ice by vehicles travelling at various speeds and distances from a sound recording point. It is hoped that this information will enable us to determine whether vehicle activity masks vocal communication among Weddell seals under the ice, or in some way changes their vocal behaviour. Our ultimate goal is to collect information on the in-air and under-water noise generated by a wide range of vehicles and aircraft operating under a variety of conditions (for example, under blue ice, open water, snow-covered ice, or in areas with different bathometry). This information should greatly improve our ability to predict the impact our activities are likely to have on Antarctic marine mammals and seabirds.

Next summer (2001–02), the research will continue to expand with a study investigating the effects of human activity on surface-nesting petrels, particularly Southern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialoides) and Cape petrels (Daption capense). Once again, an experimental approach will be adopted to enable us to measure how the birds respond to approaches by people and to approaches by small boats with outboard motors. As this is also a multi-year project, it is hoped that in the future, we will begin to investigate the responses of some subantarctic seabird species to human activity.

The ultimate aim of the research will be to continue to establish specific codes of conduct and protocols to be used by the Australian Government and Antarctic tour operators to minimise human interference with Antarctic wildlife. Such guidelines should then contribute to sustainable, recreational visits of Antarctic wildlife by commercial tourists and ANARE personnel.

Melissa Giese and Tamara van Polanen Petel
Human Impacts Research Program,
Australian Antarctic Division


Coughlan, G. (1998). Trends and discontinuities in Antarctic tourism.

Antarctica 2010: A notebook. Proceedings of the Antarctic Futures Workshop. (G. Tetley ed.) Antarctica New Zealand. pp. 10–12.