A Changing Antarctica Draws 'Doomsday' Tourists

People on deck of ship

Antarctica is not as remote as it once was, as thousands of tourists a year visit the continent. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR
Visitors hike through snow

Visitors have had a more positive than negative effect on the continent, some say. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR

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A Bright Spot of Life on the Icy Continent
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Window view from cruise ship

Fleets of ocean liners chug through Antarctica's waters, but tour guides say keeping Antarctica pristine is their top priority. Jessica Goldstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein, NPR

At one of the finest cocktail lounges in the Antarctic Circle, Carol Hughes is sipping a mystery drink from a wine glass. It's after dinner onboard a luxury cruise liner. And Hughes, an English clinical nurse, says whatever it is she's tasting is better than anything else she has had tonight.

"It's lovely. It feels cleaner, much smoother," Hughes says, savoring the taste in her mouth. "I'd say there's probably something in there slightly ... something to do with fish, I'd say."

What Hughes doesn't know is that she's sipping an iceberg. When she finds out, she laughs and says, "Is that the one that the penguin was walking over?"

Antarctica, like every other continent, is too big to describe in one take. But Hughes's description of the melted iceberg water is an awfully good start. Antarctica is lovely. It does feel cleaner, and it has something to do with fish.

Still, much of the continent remains a mystery, a cold and curious void. So most people learn the facts and fill in the rest with feeling. Every cabin on the ship has a book that touches on how remote the continent is — what can live here, what can't. And yet all 159 pages amount to a few lines of verse from the poet Pablo Neruda:

There all ends
and doesn't end:
there all begins:
rivers and ice part,
air is married to snow

A Sense of Place

Karin Strand, the expedition leader on the ship, expresses a sentiment similar to Neruda's. "Take some time and simply stop and reflect a little bit about what you're seeing," she advises, "because it's pretty overwhelming."

Put down your camera and get into the spirit of this place, Strand says. You've got to appreciate the beauty, the loneliness, the unlikeliness of this continent that Aristotle suspected was here but could never prove. Only a smidgen of the world's population has ever seen Antarctica. So Strand says that if you decide to come this far, don't blow it.

"Unless you stop and take a look once in a while you will miss it," she says. "Yes of course you will see it, but you won't see it. ... I mean, I am Norwegian and I thought that I had seen enough snow and ice for the rest of my life just living where I am. ... It is a feeling — it's not like you can explain it with pictures or film, really. You just have to be there."

Many of the people who visit the perpetual winter of Antarctica are in the autumn of their lives. They want to unlock the mystery of the place. They also want to learn about the effects of climate change here. Those people are called 'doomsday tourists' — they want to see the continent's coastline before warmer temperatures melt the ice.

But more than anything, the people who visit Antarctica want to have fun. Aroon Patel is 70 years old and he walks with a cane. And at one of the boat's last landings on the Peninsula, which stretches north from the continent, Patel slid down a glacier on his tush.

"It was like a roller coaster on your bum," he says, smiling. "Best ride I've ever had in my life. At age 70, you find something like this, different ... it's wonderful. Wonderful."

And that's not the only thing that got his backfield in motion.

On the tail end of the voyage, the ship's crew put on an evening of entertainment that included music and lyrics by Usher, Lil' Jon and Ludacris. There's something surreal about being on a boat in the near-frozen middle of nowhere — and listening to men sing about women in their birthday suits. But you know what they say: Hip hop is the poetry of the streets. Even here, where there are no streets.

Changing the Continent

What the tourists onboard the ship don't know is that they are testing an important scientific principle. Does the very act of observing something change it? In Antarctica, the answer is "probably." Antarctica — so clean, so pure — is now a hot destination. Armadas of ocean liners are troubling her cool, heavy waters. And tourists are sharing terrain vital to the continent's wildlife.

Wherever humans go, Karin Strand says, "we have sort of a brutal way of imposing on nature." But there is a prime aim in Antarctica, she says: Keep it as a wilderness.

That means if anyone drops so much as a plastic bag in the water, Strand says, the ship will turn around and retrieve it.

Robyn Steegstra is guiding a group of Americans onboard the ship. She says Antarctic tourism has actually helped the continent. Bases that conduct scientific research along the coast have been prodded to clean up their act.

"I remember 20 years ago ... some of these bases, they looked like nothing more than dumps," Steegstra says. "The rusted material, the 20 or 30 years of rusting tin cans out back, the old machinery. We've had bases where they would go, 'Oh, you want to see a penguin?' and they would go pick them up. They were just pushing them out of their way; there wasn't this concern for the wildlife.

"But when people started visiting and seeing this, there's been an enormous change in the way bases operate ... regarding the environment and the wildlife. And that was largely due to visitors," she says.

So the industry's bottom line appears to be that sometimes you've got to risk a little to get a lot. An international treaty prevents mining, drilling and dumping here. But tour operators say that the world's last great wilderness also needs goodwill ambassadors for its continued protection. And people like Carol Hughes, the English nurse who drank water from the iceberg, can make pretty poetic ambassadors.

"It's just absolutely magical. I don't think I should be the same person when I get home," Hughes says. "It really makes you feel so humble to think that this is such a wilderness and that we have to preserve it at all costs, really. It's a special place and we mustn't spoil it. We must look after it."

After all, the best lines about Antarctica have been uttered by the people who have been here. "Glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairy tale," wrote Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole.

And perhaps Fritz Klein said it best. He and his wife came here from York, Pa. Klein is no expert on the threat of climate change to Antarctica. But now more than ever, he's dead set against anything or anyone marring the continent's beauty.

As he put it: "They betta' neva'."

Produced by Jessica Goldstein

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