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Expeditions, Nature and Helicopters

Let’s talk about helicopters and expedition cruises.  Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? With Scenic Cruises having its new ship, Scenic Eclipse, and Crystal Cruises having its new ship, Crystal Endeavor, being delivered shortly, and they both have incorporated helicopters as part of their expedition experiences, this is an issue that really needs to be addressed. (Noting that Lindblad, Silversea Expeditions, Seabourn Venture and many others do not employ helicopters.)

Scenic Eclipse Helicopter

Hence, the question to me is: 

While helicopters flying over exotic places sounds cool, is it really?  

For me the answer is a resounding NO!  

I have a number of concerns including, but not limited to:

  • Safety
  • Environmental Impact
  • Guest Experience

Safety is a huge concern for a number of reasons.  Having been involved in the superyacht industry for many years, I am well aware of serious concerns over taking off and landing a small flying object with furiously rotating metal blades onto a small platform near the superstructure of a ship that is moving in many directions at once (rocking, rolling and yawing) with wind from possibly more than one direction.  Quite a few years have been spent balancing safety and operational concerns against the desires usually more so than needs of the yacht/ship owner and its guests.  So remember it is, well and truly, a balancing act…no pun intended.

Check out the care needed in landing an EC135, which is very similar to Scenic’s Airbus H130, on a superyacht:

There are also great concerns about Antarctica’s infamous quickly changing weather. Clear skies and calm water can change to hurricane-force winds, significant swells, and dangerous ice literally in a matter of minutes.  I have borne personal witness to issues with just trying to retrieve guests from zodiacs when calms seas became six-foot swells with bitter winds almost instantly.  And while it might be uncomfortable bobbing in a zodiac or an hour or so, what exactly is a helicopter supposed to do?  It is not like one can just land anywhere and wait for better conditions.

Another issue: Not all helicopter pilots are equally experienced or talented. I have no idea who the helicopter pilot(s) are and what their relationship is with either the cruise line or the helicopters. As we have seen with certain cruise ship captains and airline pilots there are some incredible talents and some who have issues. More important to me: What are the pilots’ experience flying in the thinner, colder and usually dryer air of Antarctica; where depth-perception is yet another concern.

As for Scenic’s helicopter, an Airbus H130, is a quality aircraft that have been used from Africa to Iceland for sightseeing to heliskiing. And while they are designed to be low maintenance I do have concerns over their maintenance and the lack of available parts and skilled workers; especially while the ship is in remote areas.  This, obviously, is the least of my concerns, but well worth noting.

Environmental Impact is a hugely important issue. I am not talking about the possibility of aviation fuel spilling or exhaust fumes, but rather the impact on wildlife.  Noise from a helicopter (or pretty much anything else) is heard by animals differently. An elephant seal may hear one thing and a gentoo penguin another. And, to be sure, it is not only the perceived noise that can affect wildlife, but the changes in air pressure (that is how sound is transmitted, by the way) that can trigger unexpected responses.

In 2017 the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Authority released a report on the impact of noise on wildlife. Without getting to technical, the report found that aircraft noise did not appear to have a significant impact on domesticated animals for economic purposes (ex. cow milk production, chicken egg production) “ranging from alert reactions to physiological indicators of stress (e.g. changes in hormonal levels, organ function, etc.)” and that low frequencies (not heard by humans) may have a significant effect on invertebrates such as insects, including reduced numbers of aquatic insects near roadways.  Even fish have been found to have adverse reactions to aircraft noise with even limited exposure.

As for birds, background noise can make their hearing calls from others harder, if not impossible. (Ever wonder why a baby penguin can recognize its parents by a call that you think is identical to the other ones around it?)

Because of this, there are strict guidelines that have been established by the Antarctic Treaty so that breeding colonies of birds are to be avoided and non-breeding colonies are to be overflown as little as possible and at no lower than 2,000 feet. For example:

– During the planning of aircraft operations near to concentrations of birds, consideration should be given to undertaking flying activities outside of the main breeding and/or moulting periods.

– Penguin, albatross and other bird colonies are not to be over flown below 2000ft (~ 610 m) Above Ground Level, except when operationally necessary for scientific purposes.

– Landings within 1/2 nautical mile (~ 930 m) of penguin, albatross or other bird colonies should be avoided wherever possible.

– Never hover or make repeated passes over wildlife concentrations or fly lower than necessary.

– Maintain a vertical separation distance of 2000 ft (~ 610 m) AGL and a horizontal separation of 1/4 nautical mile (~ 460 m) from the coastline where possible.

– Cross the coastline at right angles and above 2000ft (~610 m) AGL where possible.

Yes, there are impacts from ships and humans, but the sound levels and much slower movements – as well as familiarity with them – have a much lower impact.

Guest Experience is really what this topic is all about, isn’t it?  Leaving aside the potential impact on wildlife and the safety issues, there is no question that the use of helicopters will have a definite and potentially significantly degrading impact on the guests not flying in that very moment.

No helicopter needed!
Observe how close the Seabourn Quest is to the penguin colony

I also have to ask: Other than the thrill of a few guests wanting to go up in a helicopter, What is it that they expect to see in a few minutes in the air that you cannot similarly or better appreciate from the ground or on the ship?  I mean if the concept is to be above something, rather than be embraced by it, so that someone can take “that photograph” or have bragging rights of some sort, does the impact upon others matter?

You may recall I noted above that in order to take off or land the ship must be a significant distance from the shore; especially if wildlife is present.  That means every guest that wants to view from the ship may well be too far away to have any meaningful view.  And those that want to make a landing by way of zodiac are going to be forced to ride extended distances and, possible, not be able to visit the better areas for viewing wildlife because of the restrictions in place due to helicopter operations.

And then there are these questions:

– Do you want to be walking among penguins, enjoying the calls, listening to the wind or the crunching of the snow and have it interrupted with the “whoop, whoop, whoop” of a helicopter?
– Do you want to be watching petrels flying about, skuas on the hunt and albatross soaring only to be disrupted and scattered by a helicopter?
– Do you want to be taking a nap or reading a book in your stateroom or suite and be awoken by the noise of a takeoff or landing?

I have lived in some pretty remarkable areas and, to be sure, this is a sort point.  I live in a pretty much bucolic area of the world: Lake Tahoe, California.  I love to hike or just take in the natural beauty. But, especially during Tourist Season, rather than just hearing the birds, the wind in the trees and the rushing of the Truckee River, I constantly have my tranquility and time with nature interrupted by planes taking off and landing at the local airport or dragging gliders into the sky (which, ironically, I cannot hear when I am inside Goldring Travel’s offices; literally a stone’s through from the runway). When I lived on the Jersey Shore I would watch the Shrewsbury River with its salt marsh across the way…interrupted by jet skis and speed boats. And, oh those times sitting in marshes, the Everglades, etc. birdwatching…and then the loud noises of human machines scaring off the wildlife.

It grew out of those experiences that I see things like helicopter rides in pristine areas as, well, selfish.  I see it being about Just because you want to and just because you can afford to, it doesn’t mean you should improvidently impact upon nature, wildlife and the experiences of people trying to appreciate both

Yes, there are places where helicopter rides may be more appropriate and where the wildlife has become somewhat acclimated such as Hawaii, Alaska, Iceland.  But there are already ways to readily enjoy this flightseeing without the safety issues and negative impact upon others’ guest experiences.

It is hoped that the idea of having helicopters on expedition ships will become something akin to what Royal Caribbean did with its ubiquitous rock-climbing walls, etc. it be recognized as the marketing gimmick it truly is, rather than an essential part of an expedition journey.

A Final Uncomfortable Thought: There is going to be an accident at some point. And any such accident is a horrible thing, but when it happens in a remote area what are the options available to recover and treat the injured (no less any who have died)? Who will be present that is qualified to treat these victims? How will they be able to be transported to a proper care facility?

Having the ability to experience nature in all its glory is an extraordinary privilege. But as technology expands our abilities the phrases, “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but photographs and memories” and “Pack it in. Pack it out. Leave no trace” take on new meanings.

Tourist helicopters have impacts and while you probably won’t be able to see much their negative impacts while you are present, they will, unfortunately, leave more than footprints and traces of environmental impacts.  And they will degrade the overall expedition guest experience both present and future; not to mention a potential serious impact on such places as Antarctica.

So now I ask one question of you: Are helicopters on expedition ships worth it?

Interested in an expedition journey by sea or land? Please give me a call, drop me an email or send me a Facebook message!

US: (877) 2GO-LUXURY (877-246-5898)
UK: 020 8133 3450
AUS: (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else: +1 530 562 9232

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