Mindanao Times

Antarctica tourism: the quest for Earth’s vulnerable extremes


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 towards 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.

AFP 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.

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.

The Antarctic peninsula is one of the regions on Earth that is warming the fastest, by almost three degrees Celsius in the past 50 years, according to the World Meteorolog­ical Organizati­on -- three times faster than the global average.

In March 2015, an Argentinia­n research station registered a balmy 17.5 degrees Celsius, a record.

Antarctica is “like the heart of the Earth,” he added, saying 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 countries -- 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 around 50 years, but their numbers only started to increase from 1990, as Soviet ice-breakers found new purposes in the post-Cold War era.

Some 78,500 people are expected to visit the region between November and March, according to the Internatio­nal Associatio­n of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).

That’s a 40-percent increase from last 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.

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

But some question whether tourists should be going to the region at all.

Antarctic tour operators insist they are promoting responsibl­e tourism.

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