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But with so many ships, it can be difficult to stay out of each other’s way; expedition leaders now spend much of their time communicating with the surrounding boats, attempting to remain out of sight. Still, more tourists mean an increased risk of sinkings, fuel spills, and accidents. Last November I was lecturing aboard the Endeavour when we came upon the very first tourist ship to sink off Antarctica. Its captain reported hitting ice, which tore through two watertight compartments. Forty-nine thousand gallons of fuel spilled into the Southern Ocean, but all 154 passengers were safely evacuated. "This was just a drill," said a fellow guide as we winched the Explorer’s Zodiacs onto our deck. "Next time I’m sure it will involve people dying."

In January a brand-new Norwegian ship, the Fram, lost power near Brown’s Bluff at the tip of the Peninsula and was blown into a glacier, destroying its lifeboats. Miraculously, the bang helped jump-start the ship’s power and it was able to limp back to Ushuaia.

The upside to all these new trips is that more and more visitors are experiencing a conversion of sorts. You cannot Zodiac through one of Antarctica’s iceberg alleys without realizing it’s the most stunning place on the planet. You cannot stand in the midst of a penguin rookery, watching 10,000 of the little buggers file away over the hill in a single line, without smiling. You cannot watch a hundred-foot-tall glacier crack and roar and fall into the sea without feeling a certain awe. Even the most cynical of tourists, those simply out to check the place off some kind of list, cannot help but be moved by Antarctica.

The Great Penguin Mystery

Ten days into our exploration we drag our kayaks onto Petermann Island, where we’ve spied a big yellow tent. Temperatures have been typical for summer—30s during the day, teens at night—but we’ve paddled through some heavy rains, which have turned the ice and snow along the coast to slush.

Calling out, we can hear rustling from inside, and researcher Melissa Rider crawls out under a light snowfall. Pulling up the hood of her red parka, she motions for us to follow her alongside a penguin trail deep-etched into the snow. This is the fifth summer in a row she’s camped on Petermann, performing thrice-daily counts of Adélie and gentoo penguins and blue-eyed shags on behalf of the Washington, D.C.–based environmental group Oceanites, which has been monitoring wildlife in Antarctica for nearly two decades. On Petermann the results are clear: The Adélies are disappearing.

"French explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot was here a hundred years ago," Rider says as we walk. "He photographed the island covered with penguins, so we know exactly how much things have changed. In five years the Adélie population has dropped dramatically."

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