For New Zealand Visitors, Helicopters Offer Only Way Onto Two Glaciers

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The Franz Joseph Glacier. (Photo: G Morel via Flickr)

The only way for visitors to walk on two iconic glaciers in New Zealand, the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, is by taking a helicopter ride— a situation that probably won’t change in the foreseeable future, a spokesperson for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation has told GlacierHub.

The Associated Press reported in March, under the headline “Hiking on New Zealand glaciers banned because of rapid melting,” that it had become impossible for visitors to hike up onto these glaciers because of the dangers posed by their quick recession. It also noted that the number of people who could walk on the glaciers had been cut in half now that helicopters have become the only way to venture onto them, compared to before when people could hike up onto them.

Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)
Helicopter carrying tourists landing on Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand (source: Ingolfson/Wikimedia)

Jose Watson, a communications adviser for the Department of Conservation in New Zealand, explained the situation in an email to GlacierHub:

There are rivers that come out of the terminal face (front) of the glacier and these rivers often change course meaning that tracks, bridges and viewing points are regularly moved. The glacier is receding, and has reached a point where it is no longer possible to access on foot, so if people want to walk on the glacier they can do so by booking a helihike with one of the guiding companies. A helihike takes people up onto a safe spot on the glacier and walk goes from there. Walking access has not been “banned” as such, but it’s not possible, or safe at the moment, and this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

While helicopters might be a quick and exciting way for tourists to see the glaciers, they are not without their risks— last year, a Squirrel helicopter crashed on the Fox Glacier, claiming the lives of seven people. That deadly event was one of seven accidents involving aircraft and glaciers in New Zealand since 2008.

Almost one million people traveled to see New Zealand’s glaciers in 2015, the Associated Press reported. The beautiful glaciers and striking scenery are part of what lures people to the country.

“It’s the uniqueness, the rawness of the environment,” Rob Jewell, chairman of the Glacier Country Tourism Group, told the AP.  

And for now, unfortunately, helicopters are the only way to experience that raw environment on these two shrinking glaciers.

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3 Comments

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Lynn Martelreply
May 23, 2016 at 03:05 PM

I’m a bit dismayed that no-one in this article makes the connection that sightseeing by helicopters burning ridiculous amount of jet fuel for the gratification of those who have lots of money to pay for said activity are a very real part of the reason the glaciers are melting so fast in the first place!

GlacierHub
GlacierHubreply
May 24, 2016 at 10:05 PM
– In reply to: Lynn Martel

thanks for your comment. There are so many sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and these helicopters are a tiny fraction of the emissions on our planet. Still, your comment is a good reminder of the importance of striving for more sustainable livestyles.

Alexander Hromasreply
May 24, 2016 at 12:05 AM

There is a large body of photographic evidence form the 1930’s where both the Franz Joseph and Fox glaciers are visible form the main coastal road about 10 km west of their current terminals. Both glaciers are steep and currently all that remains of them is their ice falls from their neves down to near sea level.

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