Bird flue and a warming climate may be putting the increasingly popular cruises to Antarctica in danger of either an outright ban or severe limitation on activity to protect the land and its penguin population.
The concern is that an aviant variant of the H5N1 flu virus could decimate the continent's vast penguin population. There is already concern that the disease could be spread by flocks of birds migrating from South America, where the flue has become widespread. The danger is highest from November to March, which is also the peak season for human visits.
Industry group IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, says it has significantly tightened up the rules its members operate by and believes they may be able to avoid an outright ban.
Among the procedures in place are assessing landing sites for signs of bird flu, not going ashore if they are present, and leaving if any behavioral signs become apparent. Cruise passengers are told not to sit, kneel or lie down on the ground, or leave any equipment, close to animal activity. Visitors are also instructed to maintain a minimum distance of five metres between themselves and wildlife wherever possible.