Antarctica tourism: the quest for Earth's vulnerable extremes
HALF MOON ISLAND, AntarcticaThe 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.
"Purity, grandeur, a scale that's out of this world," says Helene Brunet, an awestruck 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."
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.