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A 'whale's eye view' of the changing Arctic

UNEP study tour sees close encounters with wildlife and inspiration for sustainable tourism

By Peter Prokosch, GRID-Arendal

The study tour saw evidence of retreating glaciers in Svalbard and other effects of climate change.
Photo by Peter Prokosch

We're in the crystal-clear waters of Svalbard, less than a thousand kilometers from the North Pole, or 80° 07.3'N. 15° 51.7'E, to give our precise location. Soon, our team of scientists, tourists and environmentalists will meet the white carpet of drifting sea ice that covers the Arctic Ocean. It is here at the ice edge where the ocean teems with wildlife, thanks to the combined conditions of uninterrupted sunshine and nutrient-rich waters.

The entire Arctic food chain is on display. Micro algae are blooming in the water, providing sustenance for schools of fish larvae and crayfish. Seals, walruses, polar bears and whales feed on the plentiful sea life. But by far the most impressive sight to greet our crew under the flat, midnight sun of the Arctic was a remarkable appearance by Earth's largest mammals.

At one point, two adult blue whales, measuring around 30 metres in length, along with one of their young, started feeding on crayfish around our boat. As the captain switched off the engines, we were able to observe the animals at remarkably close range. And the whales certainly weren't shy. Opening their gigantic mouths, they turned almost upside down in front of us, displaying their side flippers and tails before rotating back again and closing their mouths to swallow the krill, not forgetting to leave a small portion for the hundreds of kittiwakes and fulmars circling nearby.

The study tour to Svalbard was the first of two expeditions organised by UNEP's Polar Centre GRID-Arendal. Another group of tourists and researchers will set sail for Antarctica on 4 November. The tours are part of GRID-Arendal's 'Linking Tourism and Conservation' (LT & C) project, which aims to show how sustainable tourism can help protect vulnerable habitats - particularly those rich in biodiversity.

Svalbard, with its large coverage of national parks and protected status for polar bears and other native species, is one of the tourism models highlighted by the LT & C project.

Tourism is one of the world's biggest industries, representing some 5 percent of global GDP and accounting for over 10 percent of current annual investment worldwide. In this respect, the industry can play a key role in the shift to a green economy.

The Linking Tourism and Conservation project aims to encourage the growth of well-managed protected areas that bring economic benefits for local people, due to increased investment in sustainable tourism.

GRID-Arendal also plans to produce an interactive map of tourist destinations that are participating in conservation work. It is hoped that the map will encourage investment in tourism projects that support conservation and allow tourists to view a destination's green credentials before finalising their trip.

Trips to the pristine habitats of Antarctica and the Arctic show both the beauty and vulnerability of nature. In Svalbard, we saw at first hand the effects of climate change. Glaciers have retreated significantly in recent years and on mountains that were once covered in ice, there are now large patches of bare ground.

The forthcoming study tour to Antarctica will focus on marine protected areas, taking in wildlife - such as Emperor penguins and albatross - living in one of the most striking landscapes on Earth. As in Svalbard, close encounters with this spectacular environment should inspire greater action to conserve habitats and biodiversity through a new, greener brand of tourism.

Tuesday 21 Sep 2010
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