Two members of a gospel group were caught this last austral summer sowing barley in Antarctica in a bio-security breach that highlights calls for tougher controls on growing tourism to the continent.
The pair was seen dispersing barley seeds as they hiked on Deception Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, where rising temperatures are leading to increased plant growth on previously barren ground. The attempt to sow the barley was made last summer despite a briefing for tourists, including the gospel group, warning against such behaviour.
''The dispersed seeds were collected and the severity of the offence explained to the passengers,'' the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, IAATO, reported. ''Additional seeds were confiscated. The group was carefully monitored during future landings.''
The tour organiser was G Adventures, of Toronto, Canada, and the cruise vessel MS Expedition.
A similar act nine years ago on the same island was described by an American evangelist, Mary Craig. ''We scattered and released the seeds of the harvest of souls to be saved'', she wrote on her website. ''We understood that we were planting seeds that would sprout as others came to water and plant the church of Christ.''
Barley is a highly adaptable crop that grows as far north as the Arctic Circle.
The incident was reported by the IAATO to the annual Antarctic Treaty meeting, which opened in Hobart this week.
Tighter supervision of tourists who land on the continent, including official inspections, and an outright ban on the use of mega cruise liners, are being sought by an umbrella environment group, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, ASOC.
IAATO figures show that tourist numbers are rising again after the global economic slowdown and a ban on heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters that affected big passenger ships.
It estimates that 34.950 tourists will visit the Antarctic next summer. Australians comprise the second biggest number of tourists to Antarctica after Americans.
The impact of humans, much of it unintended, is rising, to the concern of the 50-nation Antarctic Treaty Organisation.
The IAATO reported another case in which a Gentoo penguin chick was injured, and later euthanized, when a camera tripod was knocked over onto it.
ASOC tourism campaigner, Ricardo Roura, said there was a ''mismatch'' between the spread of tourism and the limited number of official inspections of the tourists' activities.
The Australian Sustainability, Environment, Water, population and Communities Minister, Tony Burke, said he wanted to improve environmental protection in Antarctica and the waters surrounding it.
''It's all about ensuring there can be growth in tourism but ensuring the footprint doesn't affect the environment,'' Mr Burke said.