“It was at this point that things began to deteriorate.”
March 7, 1988
Mr. John B. Talmadge
Division of Polar Programs
1800 G Street, NW
Washington, DC 20550
As I promised, the following are brief observations regarding our recent Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) cruise aboard M/V SOCIETY EXPLORER. Some of these comments refer to the general operation of SOCIETY EXPLORER, some are specific to our visit to Palmer Station on February 15th,1988.
Our cruise on SOCIETY EXPLORER was meticulously organized and executed. The standard of seamanship and regard for safety and the environment compared favorably or exceeded anything I saw in ten years of involvement in Antarctic marine scientific ship operations. During the cruise I observed no incident that threatened the safety of passengers nor did I see any article being jettisoned from the ship or ashore. Prior to each landing a briefing took place which thoroughly prepared the passengers and informed them of precautions necessary to protect the ecology of the specific landing site. Any passenger who demonstrated inattention to the instructions given was politely but firmly corrected.
Lectures given on the cruise were accurate, objective and informative. Great emphasis was placed on the conservation of the Antarctic environment. Information presented was justified by solid scientific information rather than subjective, emotional or militant environmentalism.
There were 97 passengers embarked on our cruise (32 in the WHOI group). Most were middle aged or relatively elderly, many, but by no means all, were wealthy and almost all were highly informed. Without exception they enjoyed the experience and were profoundly impressed by what they saw.
Prior to embarkation I was somewhat cynical in my expectations, but upon sailing it was quickly apparent that my preconceptions were inaccurate and unfounded.
If I were to fault any aspect of our cruise, my personal view was that we made too many station calls. In the course of the cruise we visited Palmer, Almirante Brown (where a small summer season program is back in operation), Farraday, Artowski [sic], and Ferraz. This, apparently, is more than is usual on the EXPLORER’s cruises. My feeling is that while visits to one or two stations are necessary, both to satisfy passengers and show an important aspect of contemporary Antarctica, more time could have been spent productively, whether steaming, landing or anchored, at locations that better represent the beauty and isolation of the Antarctic Peninsula. On discussing this observation with shipboard staff and Society Expedition’s Seattle management, I found them receptive and essentially in agreement with me.
In specific regards to our visit to Palmer Station, it was for most aboard the low point of our stay in the Peninsular area. In making this observation I assign no blame but report the sentiments of the passengers.
The shipboard lecture staff had accurately briefed the passengers on the ground rules for the visit and explained the reasons for the restrictions involved in positive terms. It was made quite clear to passengers that Palmer’s reason for being was science rather than as a geopolitical showpiece. The lecture staff further explained the pressure investigators are under at Palmer to successfully complete their research in on-station deployments that are normally far shorter than their counterparts based at other nations’ stations. I amplified these statements by summarizing the level of competition for NSF funds, pointing out that the extensive time investment involved in proposing, preparing for and executing a single research program in the Antarctic represented a career risk for scientists that cannot be jeopardized by interruption. All of this was well received.
We anchored at Palmer at 0830 on 2/15 and departed at 1300 (ship/Chile time). Upon arrival, Nadene Kennedy and a group of science and support personnel boarded. Nadene Kennedy then gave the passengers an illustrated lecture on USAP that lasted approximately 35 minutes. One observation of this briefing is that there was far more emphasis on logistics then there was on the scientific goals of the program and the specific research underway at Palmer and other U.S. stations. The briefing was also rather oversimplified for that specific group, but this always is something very difficult to judge. Following Nadene, the senior scientist on station made a few brief remarks. During this lecture period a souvenir shop had been set up in the ship’s bar/saloon. At the conclusion of the lecture passengers were taken ashore for half hour periods in groups of approximately 25 persons. During this period groups of passengers not ashore at Palmer were landed at the Torgerson rookeries.
It was at this point that things began to deteriorate. Passengers, as per instructions, were restricted to exterior areas only.
A couple of research assistants met passengers as they came ashore and told them something about the station and the research being conducted, other station and science personnel, not on the ship, pretty much kept out of sight. Standing outside on the dock area without “props” there was little that could be meaningfully explained or demonstrated. On the boardwalk a demonstration tank had been set up with a couple of starfish and one or two other specimens. Although it was probably the best that could be done with limited resources, as the principal “attraction” it was disappointing.
The balance of the time was spent completing the circuit around that boardwalk and around the back of the galley returning to the dock. As a result, the principal view and impression of Palmer was the outside storage areas which, as you know, are not the most aesthetic aspect of the station.
During this circuit of the building discomfort developed. Station and science staff, despite doing the best job possible within the prescribed ground rules, appeared uncomfortable. They were obviously trying to be polite and make people seem welcome, but really did not have ways to demonstrate this in any meaningful way. The conditions of the visit made it quite clear that we were not really welcome. Almost to a person the passengers left feeling they had been an unwelcome imposition. Quarantine was a word commonly used.
I should add a personal footnote here, during my days on ELTANIN and ISLAS ORCADAS I had visited Palmer a number of times and thus had no great desire to enter the station. I did ask while ashore that Dr. Stanley Watson, a Scientist Emeritus in our Biology Department who was on the cruise, be allowed to view the biological lab spaces. Stan Watson, an NSF ocean sciences/biology grantee of substantial standing, was the person who opened up the field of blue-green algae oceanic photosynthesis and is one of the most respected members of our staff. He embarked on our cruise to run a sampling program to determine the presence and abundance of certain blue greens south of the convergence. If his data reveals sufficient levels of these blue greens he intended to propose a sampling program based at Palmer at some point in the future. Stan, for this reason, asked to be able to briefly see the biology lab spaces. On making this request it was denied on the basis that no exceptions could be made. Stan, to his credit, took this very pragmatically but it was a great disappointment and a surprising setback.
In summary, everyone was being as accommodating as possible, but the net result was decidedly negative. Reactions amongst U.S. passengers ranged from anger to disappointment, the European passengers, for the most part, viewed the situation with cynical amusement. I think our passengers were typical of most, they wanted their own national presence to be a source of pride and a highpoint of the cruise. Thorough briefing and rational explanation of the reasons for the limitations cannot counter people’s expectations and emotions, especially when the stations of other nations literally and figuratively throw open their doors. A particular counterpart was Farraday. Our visit was the only one permitted to that station during the season, as a result, the visit was very wholehearted with the entire station opened for the passengers. A particular sore point for our passengers was the apparent willingness of Palmer Station personnel to accept the hospitality of the ship, both socially and for the sale of souvenirs, without reciprocation. From the passengers viewpoint it was hard to equate Palmer station personnel in the ship’s bar with closed doors ashore. By saying this I do not imply that any Palmer personnel abused the ship’s hospitality in any way, they and the souvenir operation were aboard at the ship’s invitation. From the station personnel’s point of view, and from my own experience, I know what a pleasant respite it can be to have a brief change of surroundings and see some new faces. I do think, however, that souvenirs should be sold ashore, even if outside.
To complete this, which was supposed to be a brief letter, I add my personal view and hope you will not consider me presumptuous for doing so. As I have said, I fully understand and sympathize with the reasons for the Palmer visitor limitations, but if the net result under the present system is decidedly negative, the visits are counter-productive for all concerned–visitors and station personnel. I believe that no visits would be better than the present situation.
As you correctly pointed out we have the same problem here at Woods Hole, especially since our Titanic expeditions. The public wanted access to view our facilities for the best of reasons, but we could not grant this without serious disruption to our work. Our response was to open up certain representative areas of our facilities to the public on a few (approximately 12) occasions throughout the year. Open areas are rotated for these visits, each of which is carefully planned to create the best impression for the least disruption. On an everyday basis we have an exhibit center which graphically explains the Institution’s mission and work where souvenirs are sold. This seems to have met and satisfied the public demand. Things, I fully realize, are by no means as simple in the Antarctic Program, but I think the choices are clearly to do something that will satisfy visitors at the stations, principally Palmer, or to prohibit visits altogether. Whether correct or incorrect the U.S. public as tourists in Antarctica feel they have a right to view the research being publicly supported there. There is also no reason to doubt that tourism will continue at present levels or, more likely, increase. Even if geopolitically motivated, the welcome other nation’s stations give tourists will always be used as a point of comparison to our own actions. As I realize now more than before, it’s a very tough questions and balance. But I hope it is an issue that can be addressed positively and creatively in a way that rewards those tourism organizations that conduct their operations knowledgeably and safely, cooperating with national programs, but discourages tour operators who demonstrate incompetence, ignorance, or unwillingness to cooperate.
I am positive that I have mentioned nothing that is new to you, but hope this is in some minor way useful.
I look forward to receiving the statistics from you for the Oceanus article I have yet to write.
With best wishes,
Paul Dudley Hart