Jason C. Anthony is the author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, an exploration of Antarctic history and contemporary Antarctic life through the medium of food.
Why has the story of the ice-trapped Akademik Shokalskiy turned into a significant media event? Because the people aboard (aside from the Russian crew) have made a point of telling the story, day by day, step by step. While this is standard marketing practice, it’s also the clearest sign that the Spirit of Mawson expedition is primarily a tourist cruise operating under the gloss of scientific and historical relevance. In itself this is fine, as the expedition is just one of many tourist ships cruising the Antarctic’s waters, all of which can get into trouble because of harsh conditions or bad decisions. (Remember the 2007 sinking of the polar cruise vessel Explorer? Other cruise ships have run aground as well.) But the Spirit of Mawson expedition’s guise of science—deriving “data” from the repetition of measurements that were done a century ago by the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by scientist Douglas Mawson—has been propelled along by the media, which are also able to capitalize on the scary prospect of being trapped in a vast sheet of sea ice. The result has been a narrative driven by just a few of the relevant facts.
What has been missing, until a recent New York Times article, is an accounting of the significant problems caused by the “rescue” of the expedition. When icebreakers belonging to national Antarctic science programs (from China, Australia, and now the United States) are called from afar to carve a path through sea ice or ferry passengers away from the trapped Shokalskiy, they’re being diverted from other important work. The role in Antarctic waters is to support daily life and science programs at year-round Antarctic bases. Antarctic logistics are notoriously complex, and a delayed ship can wreak havoc with long-term planning. Science projects planned for years are being affected, personnel meant to arrive or leave the ice are being delayed, and expenses are mounting. Hypothetically, at least, crews aboard these vessels are being put at additional risk as well.
The Shokalskiy story raises issues that have been with us for half a century: How much Antarctic tourism is acceptable? What limits should be set? Are there safety parameters that every private expedition or cruise must follow? What responsibilities do permanent national Antarctic research programs have in monitoring or assisting the private, non-science expeditions? In the end, the brief history of Antarctica suggests that everyone down south will go to all possible lengths to help others in times of need. This is probably how it should be. The trials and tribulations of working in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean make us sensitive to the fate of others facing the same risks. But it would be nice if the media paid less attention to the troubles that poorly planned expeditions have found, and paid more attention to what, in the rescue operation, has been lost along the way.
-Jason C. Anthony