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Traveling to the ends of the earth threat to continent of extremes

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE | Updated: 2019-12-02 07:37
Tourists take pictures of a Barbijo penguin at Orne Harbur in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica, on Nov 8. [JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP]

HALF MOON ISLAND, Antarctica-The swimsuit-clad tourists leap into the icy water, gasping at the shock, and startling a gaggle of penguins.

They are 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.

Now, it's 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.

"Purity, grandeur, a scale that's out of this world," says Helene Brunet, an awe-struck 63-year-old French pensioner, enjoying the scene.

"It's unbelievable, totally unbelievable. It's amazing just to be here, like a small speck of dust."

She is one of the 430 passengers on board the Roald Amundsen, the world's first hybrid electric cruise ship, on its maiden voyage in the Southern Ocean.

When tourists go ashore, bundled up in neon-colored windbreakers and slathered in SPF50 sunscreen, they have to follow strict rules: clean your personal effects so you don't introduce invasive species, keep a respectful distance from wildlife to avoid distressing them, don't stray from the marked paths and don't pick up anything.

"We mucked up the rest of the world. We don't want to muck up Antarctica too," says an English tourist, as she vacuums cat hair off her clothes before going ashore.

'Leave it to penguins'

It is Antarctica's very vulnerability that is attracting more and more visitors.

"We want to see this fantastic nature in Antarctica before it's gone," says Guido Hofken, a 52-year-old IT sales director traveling with his wife Martina.

They said they had paid a supplement to compensate the climate damage caused by 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," says Michael Hall, 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 says.

However, when the average tourist trip to Antarctica creates over five tons of CO2 emissions per passenger including flights, he says, "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, says Soenke Diesener, transport policy officer at German conservation NGO Nabu.

"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," he says.

"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."

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