TO an observer standing on the Marr Glacier behind Palmer Station, the buildings below look like insignificant specks of human habitation clinging like barnacles to rock outcroppings in a vast expanse of ice and snow.
From here, the ocean on the other side of the station looks pristine. But out of view in Arthur Harbor is a wrecked Argentinian ship, the Bahia Paraiso, which sank in 1989, disgorging 160,000 gallons of oil into a prime scientific research site. The mostly submerged ship periodically releases more oil into the water. Though oil-spill-response crews from Palmer sprang into action, damage was done.
When it ran aground, the Bahia Paraiso was resupplying the Argentinian research base Esperanza - and also carrying 81 paying passengers.
The number of tourists heading for Antarctica has surged in recent years from a handful of visits in the late 1950s to more than 50 voyages in the 1992-93 summer season. Scientists and environmentalists are concerned.
``There are enough problems out there to warrant introducing precautionary measures relating to tourism rather than waiting for a big problem to happen,'' says Bruce Manheim Jr., senior attorney for the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund. ``Yet the administration says that no new measures are necessary, that it will just do a study to determine whether new measures are needed.''
Only 50,625 tourists have ever visited Antarctica - not even enough to fill a large football stadium. But ``anything we do [here] has a profound impact,'' says Ethan Berkowitz, the United States Antarctic Conservation Act Enforcement Officer, who was inspecting Palmer Station during our visit. ``Today we went out and looked at penguins. It's so tempting to get involved with them and to interact.... If those dangers are realized, science [studying penguin populations and behavior] is degraded.''
``We hear stories of people going into the rookeries and disturbing the animals,'' says Dennis Peacock, head of the NSF's polar-science section. ``We don't like to hear that, especially at Palmer where we have 20-year records [that could be rendered useless].''
Erick Chiang, manager of NSF's polar-operations section, points to a particularly worrisome recent development. ``Helicopters are now becoming prevalent on some of the tour ships,'' he says. ``Where they go is unknown to us.... They have the range to get into environmentally sensitive areas.''
``What concerns scientists is that so much is going on without any oversight from us,'' Mr. Peacock says.
Most of the big tour ships agree to operate under the rules of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, a voluntary group that tries to provide guidelines and education so tourists will not disturb wildlife.
According to Ann Peoples, the station manager for Palmer, bigger tour operators ``have a large investment in this market. Problems tend to happen when a new player comes in.... The larger companies will then put pressure on the new one to join the self-regulating process, because if the area is spoiled, it is not going to have the attraction it has now.''
The NSF also has a program to put observers on board tour ships to see how operators are managing visits to sensitive areas in the Antarctic.