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Antarctica's March of the Tourists

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Antarctica's March of the Tourists

Antarctica's March of the Tourists

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(Soundbite of music)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Call it March of the Tourists. More and more tourists are heading down to Antarctica. As part of our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, we're following one group on a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. They set sail from the southern most tip of South America and today we follow them onto the ice. First, something worth knowing, while for many, reaching Antarctica represents a high personal achievement, waves of high-achieving tourists could potentially do more damage there than climate change. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: When the American explorer Richard E. Byrd sat alone and dying in his hut in Antarctica in 1934, half frozen and half poisoned with carbon monoxide, he had an epiphany. Byrd wrote that he and other men of action in the exploration of the poles were risking their lives for no good reason. Byrd survived the ordeal, but his near-death experience diminished him. Mary Naus says her near-death experience made her bold, and that's why she's standing on Antarctica today.

Dr. MARY NAUS (University of Houston): In 1999, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and I had a stage one disease that required bilateral mastectomies, chemotherapy. It seemed as if it went on forever and I had a lot of time to reflect and I thought, I'm going to change the way I do things. I'm not going to say no when people ask me to go on trips. I'm going to say yes and I'm going to try to see the world.

THOMPKINS: Naus teaches clinical psychology at the University of Houston. She is one of more than 200 men and women of action who are visiting Antarctica for the first time. Whether their epiphany comes before they arrive or after they've gotten here is somehow immaterial. They are transformed.

Dr. NAUS: Antarctica represents to me a very special event, because my 60th birthday was last month, and this is my seventh continent, and I feel like I've accomplished my goal.

THOMPKINS: For serious travelers, to reach all seven continents is to achieve a kind of personal best. Getting to Antarctica is not as rough as it used to be, but it's not smooth either. Like the rest of the people here, Naus flew down to Tierra del Fuego to meet a Norwegian ocean liner. She sailed more than 40 hours across some of the world's most troubled waters. And now, she's storming the gravelly beaches of a place called Jugular Point, on the northernmost tip of the world's southernmost continent.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Mr. ROBERT ARNIM (Boca Raton, Florida): I'm going to do it nude. Ahhh.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Mr. ARNIM: Yikes, ahhh. I think so.

THOMPKINS: Other people have other epiphanies. Robert Arnim of Boca Raton, Florida is here for a swim and it's taken just a couple of seconds in near freezing water for him to realize the meaning of the word folly. Arnim wants his wife to snap a picture. Can't you just feel the ice chunks in his voice?

Mr. ARNIM: Did you get me?

Ms. MABEL ARNIM: Not inside there.

Mr. ARNIM: Oh, you didn't get me inside of there? What were you waiting on? Mabel.

THOMPKINS: She didn't get it. But over the next five days there'll be other chances. The cruise ship is following a filigreed course around the small islands along the Peninsula. Where the ice pack allows, the ship stops, we pile onto motorboats and head ashore. Where the ice is too thick along the coastline, we stand on the deck and admire. But it's more fun stumbling across the black rocks and blue-veined glaciers and seeing these little fellas.

(Soundbite of penguins chirping)

THOMPKINS: Penguins. Antarctica's outer edges are home to a small variety of birds and whales and seals, but the penguins rule in sheer number. You don't even have to look for them. Michelle Globus is a business developer from Princeton, New Jersey. She says just follow your nose.

Ms. MICHELLE GLOBUS (Business Developer: When you first bring the boat up and they stop, you're just hit with this wall of awful smell from the penguin poo.

(Soundbite of penguins chirping)

THOMPKINS: Apart from the smell, this place is fabulous. The North Pole is all ice, but Antarctica is rare earth indeed. On the Lemaire Channel, black frost-dusted mountains rise above the heavy ice water like the fists of Zeus. White glaciers reveal veins the color of blue topaz. And the light is so puckish that the silver horizon ? hundreds of miles away ? looks like you can hold out your hand and touch it.

But there are rules of engagement on the continent. The tour operators say you've got to keep your hands to yourself. The continent's delicate wildlife depends on human restraint.

Mr. STEVE FORREST (Wildlife Researcher): We're not having no effect here.

THOMPKINS: Steve Forrest is a wildlife researcher who's been coming back and forth from Bozeman, Montana to a place called Petermann Island every summer for the past 13 years.

Mr. FORREST: On some days we may see 600 people here on this island in a day. We get more people than I might see on a given day on the streets of Bozeman.

THOMPKINS: Forrest says that some of the penguins on the island are dying off, but he can't tease out whether they're dying because of a climb in water temperature or because of the boom in Antarctic tourism. Last year, a cruise ship sank carrying thousands of gallons of fuel. And even we, the penguin paparazzi can't be trusted. Despite stern warnings from the cruise line, one or two people on our ship slipped pebbles into their pockets to take home. So the human hand is altering Antarctica.

Mr. ARY PEREZ (Designer, San Paolo, Brazil): Antarctica for me is like the white Amazon.

THOMPKINS: That's Ary Perez, a designer from San Paolo, Brazil. He's drawn to Antarctica because of its unspoiled perfection.

Mr. PEREZ: It is almost - us and the snow and the seals. That means it's a kind of paradise.

THOMPKINS: And there's the rub. That very sentiment makes it hard for people to let this frozen treasure be. Rick Atkinson is a manager at Port Lockroy Station on nearby Goudier Island. He had his own epiphany in the Antarctic, and later helped refurbish an old British base which boasts the only post office for miles. Atkinson has seen plenty of tourists fall in love with this place. He says it's a particular kind of transformation.

Mr. RICK ATKINSON (Manager, Port Lockroy Station): Caught by the ice. That lovely expression I heard from a captain one time as somebody was climbing onto the ship. Watch out for the ice! ? and the guy thought he was meaning don't slip on the ice on the gangway. But what he meant was that the ice all around about you in the Antarctic would get you. And once you've been here and been got by the ice, you'd just want to keep coming back to it.

THOMPKINS: To most of the world's population, Antarctica is still an icy Brigadoon, more fable than fact. But now, as we stand on Goudier Island, nothing seems more real than blue ice and pink penguin droppings and black earth under winter white. Now the rest of the world seems more fable than fact. Why build cities when there are skylines like this? Why write operas when you can hear a glacier fall into the sea? Why worry about little things when there are such grand discoveries to be made? That's how the mind works when it's been caught by the ice.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can take a photographic tour of Antarctica at npr.org/climateconnections, and there you can also get the latest global warming stories from National Geographic magazine.

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