In the morning we take an early zodiac from the ship in the face of a wind that could cut glass, to visit the ‘icebergs graveyard’, a shallow sound where large chunks of the glacier have been grounded and then shaped by high winds and tides. The result is an eerie landscape where bergs have been carved into arches, peaks, shallow pools and even something resembling a battleship.
A pod of minke whales cruises back and forth across the bay giving us several close encounters and a curious sea leopard sticks its head up by our boat, surveying fat tourists with hungry eyes. After an hour we are met by another zodiac, bearing a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Tia Maria. Sitting in an arctic sound gratefully sipping hot chocolate I would be hard pushed to feel more like an alien visitor if I was wearing a space suit.
To simply describe the Antarctic as beautiful or unspoiled is to miss the point. The polar regions of the planet are an incredibly delicate ecosystem that date back less than 10,000 years. Here a relatively small number of species have carved desperately hard-won niches to exploit the sparse sunlight and cope with the bitter cold. All the creatures here are highly vulnerable to the smallest changes in their environment and simply do not have the adaptability to work around man as other animals do in more temperate zones.
In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty suspended all national claims to territory in Antarctica and gave the continent over to scientific research, banning the commercial exploitation of mineral wealth for an initial thirty years (later extended until 2045). This has undoubtedly allowed the region to remain unspoiled and could be seen as a rare example of farsightedness in the governments of the day.
A more likely explanation, however, was that, at that time, the mineral wealth of Antarctica could not easily be exploited in an economic manner. It was simply easier to suspend territorial claims to avoid fighting remote wars over a land that had little capacity to generate wealth.
Nowadays however, with oil prices peaking and our thirst for consumer electronics creating new demands for exotic minerals, we have fresh definitions of what is economically viable to dig out of the ground. By 2045 the commercial pressures to start mining and drilling operations here might easily become too great to resist.
Perhaps I have little cause to complain, given that I have come to Antarctica as a tourist with a commercial operation. But it is evident to me that the people who operate here do so because they are passionate about the region and its inestimable beauty. Quite simply, the more people who know about this place and appreciate the pristine nature of Antarctica then the better our chances to save it from our own relentless greed.