IAATO & Oceanwide response to avian influenza outbreaks
Due to the presence of the avian influenza virus on South Georgia and confirmed positive cases, updated biosecurity guidelines are in effect, leading to potential closures of certain landing sites. It is crucial to underscore that Oceanwide Expeditions is unwavering in its commitment to adhere to and support all prescribed protocols and precautionary measures mandated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) and the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI).
Given the ongoing situation, specific landing sites in South Georgia are or may be temporarily closed and subsequently reopened when feasible. Despite these closures, numerous opportunities for captivating landings and Zodiac cruises on the island still exist. Our dedication is to optimize the time spent at open sites and enhance the experience with Zodiac cruising at other key locations that are presently closed. Additionally, we are flexible in adapting itineraries, offering the possibility of additional days in the Falklands or Antarctica to maximize the richness of your trip. These decisions will be based on the latest information received from respective governments, IAATO and our vessels operating in the areas affected. This approach ensures that our voyages maintain their integrity and align with the established programs of previous seasons. However, as with any trip, please note that landings are never guaranteed and are depending on weather conditions, availability, and permits.
The government of South Georgia regularly updates the list of closed sites, reflecting both reopened locations and new closures in response to detected cases of avian disease. Consequently, predicting the precise status of sites for an upcoming trip is not possible.
Below are further details about this situation. You can find more here: https://iaato.org/iaato-2022-23-biosecurity-protocols-regarding-avian-influenza/
In the event of avian influenza affecting the majority of sites in specific areas such as South Georgia we may adapt our itineraries to include additional days as required in the Falkland Islands and/or Antarctica. These decisions will be based on the latest information received from respective governments, IAATO and our vessels operating in the areas affected.
2022-23 biosecurity protocols regarding avian influenza
Since the beginning of 2022, the increasing intensity of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 outbreaks has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere, around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and southern Africa. HPAI has also caused elevated mortalities among grey seals and harbour seals in the United States.
Polar stakeholders (Antarctic Treaty parties, scientists, researchers, Oceanwide Expeditions, and other IAATO tour operators) already have robust procedures in place to protect Antarctica from pathogens and non-native species. But due to the increase of avian influenza elsewhere in the world, we are all heightening our vigilance with regard to our southern operations.
Here’s what you need to know about the response to bird flu:
Stakeholders and scientists in the Antarctic community are responding to the threat collectively. In consultation with the SCAR Antarctic Wildlife Health Working Group (AWHWG), additional protocols for the 2023-24 season have been introduced to IAATO’s standard biosecurity procedures.
Protocols for IAATO operators and staff
These protocols are likely to evolve as more information and guidance becomes available:
- Assess visitor sites for signs of HPAI in wildlife colonies before landing
- Remain vigilant for signs of HPAI and being prepared to leave a site if any signs are detected
- Do not sit, kneel, lie down, or leave equipment on the ground or snow close to animal activity or fecal matter (e.g., within 10 meters or 30 feet of nests, wildlife pathways, or haul out sites)
- Keep a minimum of five meters (15 feet) from wildlife if approached
- Camp only in places with little to no wildlife
- Wear PPE (face mask, gloves, etc.) when handling seabirds or when disease is suspected
- Remain aware of the latest advice for mitigating transmission of disease (including COVID and bird flu) when in close contact with animals, and keeping researchers aware
- Ensure all biosecurity protocols are carried out to the highest level
Protocols for expedition staff and passengers
As above, these measures may be updated as the situation in South Georgia / Antarctica evolves:
- Carry out decontamination procedures between regions
- Remove all organic matter from boots and other gear before boarding
- Apply Virkon S (or equivalent) properly and as needed
- Do pre-landing assessment before all landings
- Maintain five-meter (15-foot) distance from wildlife
- Do not lie down, kneel, crouch, or sit at wildlife sites
- Never pick up or handle dead wildlife
- Take photos or videos to support further investigations
- Note locations where you have taken photos or videos
- Report suspected cases to your EL, IAATO, and home office immediately
- Create standard operating procedures (SOPs) for scientists you are working with, especially those who work with RPAS
- Share internal SOPs with appropriate personnel
Bird Flu FAQ
Below is a thorough but by no means comprehensive list of common avian flu questions:
What is avian influenza (bird flu)?
Avian influenza is a disease that spreads naturally among wild aquatic birds that can also infect other species. While it does not usually infect humans, sporadic infections have occurred.
What is the risk to humans?
According to the World Organisation for Animal Health, there is a low risk of infection in humans. To date, all human infections have been in those who work closely with birds for prolonged periods of time.
How is it spread?
The virus is spread through contact with feces and respiratory secretions. Because of its resistant nature, including its ability to survive for a long time in low temperatures, it can be carried on clothing and equipment and can spread easily from location to location.
How can I help?
On any visit to Antarctica, you need to comply with robust procedures (as mentioned above) to prevent the spread of pathogens and non-native species. This begins before you leave home and will be part of your daily travel routine. Please consult the IAATO website for more information.