Passengers returning from their Antarctica cruise are sometimes surprised by the pleasant lack of seeing other ships during their adventure to the White Continent. Upon arrival in Ushuaia, these travelers sometimes marvel at observing eight or even ten ships of all sizes tied up alongside the long dock on “turn-around day” – that’s industry slang for disembarkation/embarkation and re-supply day – at the same time. And, most travelers have read that there are more expedition ships visiting the Antarctic Peninsula than in past years.
But, once these visitors get to Antarctica, where did all the ships go? Some guests report that they enjoyed an entire week without seeing another vessel once they left port.
First of all, the northernmost region of the Antarctic Peninsula – along with the South Shetland Islands archipelago, which is somewhat closer to the tip of South America – boasts thousands of miles of indented rocky, snowy shoreline. Small coastal islets, outcroppings, coves and bays abound. There are many, many places for a small Antarctic expedition cruise ship to hide, even if the captain and expedition leader aren’t trying! Ideal spots are often nearly invisible behind a turn of jagged, mountainous shoreline. Naturally, these sheltered anchorages provide ready access to virtually hundreds of landing sites where visitors can experience up-close and in person large penguin colonies, seals and the occasional scientific station.
Second, believe it or not, this lack of visible traffic is actually planned. This is thanks to an important tool that all Antarctic cruise operators subscribe to through their association with IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. The tool is called the Ship Scheduler, an online database that allows expedition ship operators to plan their routings for the entire season in advance. How exactly does this work, and why does it benefit the traveler?
On a much-anticipated day (“Derby Day”) approximately five months before the beginning of the Antarctic season, IAATO opens the online Ship Scheduler for operators to enter their hoped-for landing sites into the database. The Scheduler accounts for every day of the Antarctic tourism season, dividing each day into segments or visiting “windows” of 4-5 hours. Operators can select the landing site they want on a particular day and a particular window. Oh, but if it were only so easy!
Keep in mind that IAATO operators are based in many parts of the world – Australia and New Zealand, Germany and France, Norway and England, the US, Canada and Argentina, among others – and they are all vying for what they want, when they want it on each and every day of the season. And they are all entering their landing sites for each ship simultaneously on their computers, in real time on “Derby Day”, whether it is noon on the US east coast, 2:00 am in Australia or 6:00 pm in Germany!
Once a window is selected on a specific date, that window is not available to anyone else in the online database. It sounds a bit crazy and hectic, and it can be at times – particularly for those entering their data at 2:00 am – but at the end of the day, most operators get what they want or a nearby alternative that is equally attractive. When you think about it, competitors working cooperatively in order to spread around their ships throughout the Peninsula and prevent over-saturation of a landing site on any given day, it’s a pretty amazing achievement.
Think of the alternative: two, three or even more captains or expedition leaders planning to visit the same place at the same time on the same day. The result for their guests would certainly be less than satisfactory. The Ship Scheduler is part of what IAATO calls its “Wilderness Etiquette” – a sort of gentlemen’s agreement among operators, if you will, to help ensure that each ship’s passengers will enjoy the best experience possible.
As a member in good standing with IAATO and with our team active in many of the association’s committees and working groups, Poseidon supports and benefits from the Ship Scheduler and the extra value it brings to our guests. Antarctic is one of the last great remote areas of the world to visit, and we do everything we can to keep it that way.