The swimsuit-clad tourists leaped into the icy water, gasping at the shock, and startling a gaggle of penguins.
They were spectators at the end of the world, luxury visitors experiencing a vulnerable ecosystem close-up — and their very presence might accelerate its demise.
Antarctica, a vast territory belonging to no one nation, is a continent of extremes — the coldest place on Earth, the windiest, the driest, the most desolate and the most inhospitable.
Illustration: Mountain People
Now, it is also a choice destination for tourists.
All around Half Moon Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula, blocks of ice of all sizes float by on a calm sea, their varying forms resembling weightless origami shapes.
On this strip of land, that juts out of the Antarctic Polar and toward South America, visitors can see wildlife normally only viewed in zoos or nature documentaries, along with spectacular icy landscapes.
The ethereal shades of white that play across the pillowy peaks change with the light, acquiring pastel hues at dawn and dusk.
“Purity, grandeur, a scale that’s out of this world,” said Helene Brunet, an awestruck French 63-year-old, enjoying the scene. “It’s unbelievable, totally unbelievable. It’s amazing just to be here, like a small speck of dust.”
Agence France-Presse joined the 430 passengers on board the Roald Amundsen, the world’s first hybrid electric cruise ship, on its maiden voyage in the Southern Ocean.
“It’s not your typical beach, but it’s awesome to do it,” said numb Norwegian Even Carlsen, 58, emerging from his polar plunge in the 3°C water.
When tourists go ashore, bundled up in neon-colored windbreakers and slathered in sunscreen, they have to follow strict rules — clean your personal effects so you do not introduce invasive species, keep a respectful distance from wildlife to avoid distressing them, do not stray from the marked paths and do not pick up anything.
“We mucked up the rest of the world. We don’t want to muck up Antarctica, too,” said an English tourist, as she vacuumed cat hair off her clothes before going ashore.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the regions on Earth that is warming the fastest, by almost 3°C in the past 50 years, according to the World Meteorological Organization — three times faster than the global average.
In March 2015, an Argentine research station registered a balmy 17.5°C, a record.
“Every year you can observe and record the melting of glaciers, the disappearance of sea ice ... [and] in areas without ice, the recolonization of plants and other organisms that were not present in Antarctica before,” Chilean Antarctic Institute director Marcelo Leppe said.
Antarctica is “like the heart of the Earth,” he said, adding that it expands and contracts like a heart beating, while the mighty current which revolves around the continent is like a circulatory system as it absorbs warm currents from other oceans and redistributes cold water.
The Antarctic Treaty, signed 60 years ago by 12 nations — it now has 54 signatories — declared the area a continent dedicated to peace and science, but tourism has gradually increased, with a sharp rise in the past few years.
Tourism is the only commercial activity allowed, apart from fishing — the subject of international disputes over marine sanctuaries — and is concentrated mainly around the peninsula, which has a milder climate than the rest of the continent and is easier to access.
Cruise ships have roamed the region for about 50 years, but their numbers only started to increase from 1990, as former Soviet icebreakers found new purposes in the post-Cold War era.
About 78,500 people are expected to visit the region between last month and March, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) said.
That is a 40 percent increase from the previous year, due in part to short visits by a few new cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers, too many to disembark under IAATO regulations.
“Some might say: ‘Well, 80,000 people, that doesn’t even fill a national stadium’ ... [and that it] is nothing like Galapagos, which welcomes 275,000 a year, but Antarctica is a special place and you need to manage it accordingly,” IAATO spokeswoman Amanda Lynnes said.
It is Antarctica’s very vulnerability that is attracting more visitors.
“We want to see this fantastic nature in Antarctica before it’s gone,” said Guido Hofken, a 52-year-old IT sales director traveling with his wife, Martina.
They said they had paid a supplement to climate compensate for their flight from Germany, but some question whether tourists should be going to the region at all.
“The continent probably would be better off being left to penguins and researchers, but the reality is that is probably never going to happen,” said Michael Hall, a professor and expert on polar regions at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
“Vicarious appreciation never seems to be enough for humans. So with that being the case, it needs to be made as low risk to the Antarctic environment and as low carbon as possible,” Hall said. “However, when the average tourist trip to Antarctica is over 5 tonnes of CO2 [carbon dioxode] emissions per passenger [including flights], that is a serious ask.”
Soot or black carbon in the exhaust gases of the scientific and cruise ships going to the region is also of concern, said Soenke Diesener, transport policy officer at conservation non-governmental organization Naturschutzbund Deutschland.
“These particles will deposit on snow and ice surfaces, and accelerate the melting of the ice because the ice gets darker and will absorb the heat from the sun, and will melt much faster,” Diesener said. “So the people who go there to observe or preserve the landscape are bringing danger to the area and leave it less pristine than it was.”
However, Antarctic tour operators say they are promoting responsible tourism.
The trend is for more intimate, so-called “expedition cruises,” in contrast to popular giant cruise liners elsewhere which are criticized for being invasive and polluting.
With greener ships — heavy fuel, the most commonly used for marine vessels, has been banned in Antarctica since 2011 — cruise companies have sought to make environmental awareness a selling point, occasionally earning them accusations of “greenwashing.”
Global warming, pollution and microplastics are the result of human activities on other, faraway continents, tour operators say.
In Antarctica, their motto is: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, keep nothing but memories.”
However, before they have even set foot on the cruise ships departing from South America — the most common itinerary — visitors to Antarctica have already flown across the world, causing emissions that harm the very nature they have come so far to admire.
Most visitors hail from the northern hemisphere, and almost half are from the US and China, IAATO said.
“I’m a tourist who feels a little guilty about taking a flight to come here,” said Francoise Lapeyre, a 58-year-old globetrotter from France. “But then again, there are priorities. There are some trips I just won’t take, because they leave a big footprint and they’re not worth it. Crisscrossing the planet to go to a beach for example.”
Like other expedition cruises where accessible science is part of their trademark, the Roald Amundsen, owned by Hurtigruten Cruises, has no dance floor or casino. Instead, there are microscopes, science events and lectures about whales and explorers such as Charles Darwin, but they steer clear of climate change, which is only mentioned indirectly.
That is a deliberate decision as the subject has proven “quite controversial,” Hurtigruten Cruises science coordinator Verena Meraldi said.
“We held several lectures dedicated specifically to climate change, but it leads to conflicts. There are people who accept it as a fact, others who don’t,” Meraldi said.
Onboard, “passengers” are referred to as “guests,” and “explorers” rather than “cruisers.”
“Explorers” are typically older, well-heeled and often highly traveled. They are handed walking sticks as they step ashore.
“My 107th country,” said a Dane, stepping ashore in Antarctica.
The Roald Amundsen “guests” choose between three restaurants, from street food to fine dining — a far cry from the conditions endured by the Norwegian adventurer for whom the ship is named, who had to eat his sled dogs to survive his quest to reach the South Pole in 1911.
They have paid at least 7,000 euros (US$7,750) each for an 18-day cruise in a standard cabin, and up to 25,000 euros for a suite with a balcony and private jacuzzi.
Other lines are banking on ultra-luxury, with James Bond-like cruise ships equipped with helicopters and submarines, suites of more than 200m2 and butler services.
With a seaplane to boot, the mega-yacht SeaDream Innovation is to offer 88-day cruises “from Pole to Pole” starting in 2021. The two most expensive suites, with a price tag of 135,000 euros per person, are already booked.
Outside, in the deafening silence, wildlife abounds.
All around are penguins, as awkward on land as they are agile in water. Massive and majestic whales slip through the waves, and sea lions and seals laze in the sun.
On Half Moon Island, chinstrap penguins — so called because of a black stripe on their chin — strut about in this spring breeding season, raising their beaks and screeching from their rocky nests.
“This is to tell other males: ‘This is my space,’ and also, maybe: ‘This is my female,’” ornithologist Rebecca Hodgkiss, a member of the Hurtigruten Cruises scientific team, explains as a group of tourists stroll around.
The colony of 2,500 penguins has been gradually declining over the years, but it is not known if that is caused by humans or if they have just moved away, Hurtigruten Cruises vice president for expeditions Karin Strand said.
Invisible to the naked eye, traces of humankind can be found in the pristine landscape.
Not a single piece of rubbish is in sight, but microplastics are everywhere, swept in on ocean currents.
“We’ve detected them in the eggs of penguins, for example,” Leppe said.
The Antarctic, which holds the world’s largest reserve of freshwater, is a ticking time bomb, experts say.
They say that the future of millions of people and species in coastal areas around the world depends on what is happening in this region.
As a result of climate change, the melting ice sheet — especially in the western part of the continent — is increasingly contributing to rising sea levels, radically redrawing the map of the world, said Anders Levermann, head of the complexity science research department at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
This meltwater would contribute 50cm to the global sea level rise by 2100, and much more after that, he said.
“For every degree of warming, we get 2.5m of sea level rise. Not in this century, but in the long run,” Levermann said.
Even if the international community meets its obligations under the Paris Agreement to limit warming to less than 2°C, sea levels would still rise by at least 5m, he said.
“Which means that Venice is under water, Hamburg is under water, New York, Shanghai, Calcutta,” he added.
It is impossible to predict when, but the scenario appears unavoidable, Levermann said.
In the same way that a cruise ship powering ahead at full speed cannot immediately stop, sea levels would continue to rise even if all greenhouse gas emissions were to cease immediately, a study says.
The tourism industry says it hopes to make “ambassadors” out of Antarctica visitors.
“It’s good for the animal life and for the protection of Antarctica that people see how beautiful this area is, because you cherish what you know and understand,” Hurtigruten Cruises chief executive officer Daniel Skjeldam said.
Texan tourist Mark Halvorson, 72, said that he is convinced.
“Having seen it, I am that much more committed to having a very high priority in my politics, in my own inner-core convictions to being as environmentally friendly in my life as I can,” Halvorson said.
Do Guido and Martina Hofken see themselves as future “ambassadors of Antarctica?”
“Just a little bit, probably, but I don’t think I will change the world,” Guido Hofken said. “The best thing would be for nobody to travel to Antarctica.”
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