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In 2002 scientists watched the 500-billion-ton Larsen-B ice shelf shatter into thousands of tiny icebergs. This past March a 160-square-mile section broke off the Wilkins ice shelf. Two of the ten shelves along the Peninsula have vanished completely within the past 30 years. Another five have lost between 60 and 92 percent of their original size. Of the ten, Wilkins is the southernmost to start buckling. The dramatic changes suggest that the rest of the Peninsula’s ice may deteriorate soon.

Humans in the Kingdom of Ice

Rounding Enterprise Island takes nearly five hours. The ice that lines the coast forms an intimidating spectacle: one Alaska piled on top of another. Yet already our interactions with wildlife are intimate. We often hear the blow of humpback whales breaching nearby before we see them; likewise the plop-plopping of hundreds of porpoising penguins. We stop and study a half-ton leopard seal floating by on an ice floe. He looks up at us, belches, then goes back to sleep.

We finish alongside the wreck of the Guvernoren in Wilhelmina Bay. A turn-of-the-century, 5,500-ton floating whale factory, only the rusted bow of the ship now points out of the calm sea. In 1913 the Norwegian craft was considered the most sophisticated whaler working in Antarctica, producing more than 22,600 barrels of oil from over 550 whales. But on January 27, 1915, sitting in this harbor stacked with more than 16,000 barrels of oil, its crew threw a going-away party, which resulted in a massive fire. Though all 85 crewmen survived, the boat was a total loss. As we float over its sunken deck, its rusting side rails angling down through the clear sea, it’s an eerie reminder of how risky any kind of business in Antarctica must inevitably be.

In the early 21st century, tourism has replaced whaling as Antarctica’s boom industry. Demand has rocketed at the same time that big-boat operators have figured out the best routes, landings, and anchorages. More than 30 cruise ships, ranging from the hundred-passenger Endeavour to the colossal Star Princess, make back-to-back-to-back-to-back visits each season from Ushuaia, Argentina.

The boats offer vastly different experiences. The smaller touring vessels like the new, 150-passenger National Geographic Explorer, which has an onboard ROV (remotely operated vehicle), make two or three Zodiac landings each day (a hundred passengers onshore at a time), giving visitors a chance to mingle with the penguins, visit with scientists, even kayak. Passengers on the Star Princess, meanwhile, watch icebergs drift by from the ship’s putting green or casino, but do so knowing that ships carrying more than 500 passengers can’t land anyone onshore. Better are the retrofitted Russian icebreakers, such as the Akedemik Ioffe or Kapitan Khlebrikov, chartered by Quark Expeditions, which offer dedicated kayaking and hiking opportunities. One outfitter, Berkeley-based Explorer’s Corner, is leading two kayaking-and-camping expeditions this season, freeing five travelers from a big cruiser for six days.

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