Tragedy fuels debate re Antarctic cruising

By Lew Toulmin

The tragic death of popular cruiser, explorer and businessman Stephen Glyn Thomas in a hiking accident in Antarctica has fueled debate about the future of cruising and tourism in that region.

Stephen Thomas, 51, of Cambridge, England, was a successful businessman and multimillionaire who had launched three major information technology firms, including Geneva Technology, which he sold to a U.S. company for £500 million. Thomas had long had a dream of sailing to the high latitudes of both poles, and in 2003 he set off from Ipswitch, England, in his 66-foot sailboat Magic Dragon with the goal of reaching the highest latitudes possible by boat, a difficult goal he finally achieved in early 2005.

On Jan. 12, 2005, the day before he died, he wrote, “65 South! Finally completed our ‘80 North to 65 South’ mission, getting to 65 degrees 02 minutes South at 12 pm, exactly 18 months on from reaching 80 degrees north.

“Fantastic weather — cloudless blue sky and flat calm with endless visibility. Headed SW from Paradise Bay to LeMaire Straits, but found Straits completely blocked by a jumble of huge icebergs. This is as far south as we’ll get this year, unless there are strong winds to clear the ice. Retreated a few miles north to historic Port Lockroy where we found a safe nook in a rocky island which was again a massive gentoo penguin colony.”

Thomas had sailed his vessel with four others across the rough Drake Passage from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the area of the former British Antarctic Survey base at Port Lockroy, Wiencke Island, a popular destination for sailing vessels and cruise ships.

According to Skip Novak of Pelagic Expeditions, “The traffic at Port Lockroy is heavy. At least two [cruise] ships call every day, and a handful of cruising [sail] boats come and go. Wiencke Island is also popular for mountaineering and ski touring because the glaciers between spectacular peaks slope gently and have only a few crevasses.”

Thomas had climbed Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, and the famous Matterhorn in Switzerland. According to his associate and eulogist, Steve Edwards, Thomas “at the age of nearly 50 also got to within about 200 feet of the summit of Aconcagua in southern Argentina, which at 22,834 feet is the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Aconcagua is a steep and very difficult mountain. Having climbed with Steve, I know that he was a serious and determined mountaineer.”

However, on the deceptively safe-looking slopes of Wiencke Island, Thomas made a fatal error.

Thomas and his five crewmembers walked up the slopes above the anchorage. Shortly afterward, two of the crew returned to the Magic Dragon. But Thomas and two others continued up the slope, walking in the footsteps of a previous party, hoping to take some photographs. They had with them some climbing rope but not enough for a major rescue effort. Most importantly, they were not roped together.

On the way down, Thomas, the last in line in the party, suddenly disappeared. According to Skip Novak, writing in Cruising World magazine, Thomas “fell through a hidden crevasse, and although the others were able to get close to him, he quickly plunged an additional 32 feet farther onto a ledge and badly injured himself. After a very difficult struggle, the crewmembers extricated him, applied CPR, and carried him down on a stretcher.”

Thomas was treated on a cruise ship but later that night was pronounced dead by the cruise ship doctor. No one else was hurt.

Thomas left behind a wife, Catherine, and a 13-year-old son, James. Ten years earlier he had sailed around the world with his family, but they were not aboard Magic Dragon at the time of the accident.

In his eulogy, Steve Edwards said, “Stephen Thomas was universally liked and respected for his honesty and kindness as well as his numerous and very considerable achievements.”

The tragic death of Thomas has raised policy questions about private travel to high latitudes, especially Antarctica. Although tourist accidents are rare, the icy continent is very regulated, and adventure tourism is viewed dimly by the 83 national government science outposts, operated by 25 countries, that dot the landscape. Their view is that they are the professionals, and they are reluctant to risk life, limb and treasure to rescue amateur adventurers, tourists and cruisers who get into difficulty in the region.

These governments and scientists often argue that cruising and tourism should be curtailed or even more carefully regulated. In the Thomas case, no government rescue effort was mounted, but, in the past, government research bases have had to launch expensive, multimillion-dollar rescues of private expeditions. Accidents like Thomas’s drive governmental views that tourism is out of control.

The opposing view is generally represented by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), which argues that “the increasing number of visitors has produced no more than minor impacts” since tourism began in 1969 with the arrival of the adventure cruise ship Lindblad Explorer.

The association has 69 members and requires that member operators provide medical treatment and emergency evacuation facilities. The association estimates that although the total number of tourists visiting Antarctica now exceeds the number of scientists, the “total tourist days in Antarctica only constitute less than five percent of the total people-days in the region generated by the national research programs.”

Regarding accidents in Antarctica, it could be argued by analogy that if a tourist is killed in a traffic accident in Rome, that is no reason to close off tourism to Italy. And a nonscientific review of recent press reports about Antarctic rescues by this author revealed that the vast majority of expensive rescues seem to be required by scientists, not by tourists.

Stephen Glyn Thomas had no idea that he would become a focus for any such debate. The day before he died, he wrote, “After lunch, took the dinghy to a nearby unoccupied Argentinean base and climbed to some high, snowy ridges for photos and views over the boat and surrounding area. Wonderful walking on the peninsula in deep snow.”

—The Cruising World is written by Lew Toulmin.