Brittle and listless, resembling hairs trapped in a razor, a cluster of dark strands fills the microscope slide. Collected from the Southern Ocean, they were deposited by a living creature. A hirsute fur seal might seem the obvious culprit, but it’s an interloper who should get the blame.
“What you’re looking at are microplastics,” explains naturalist Bob Gilmore, recognising the all-too-familiar fibres. “Probably washed into the water from Gore-Tex jackets and synthetic fabrics.”
Looking down at my own clothes, I shudder. Suddenly, despite being 64 degrees south amidst a gallery of shape-shifting icebergs, wilderness no longer feels so disconnected from the outside world.
Antarctic tourism is on the rise
As our appetite for adventure grows, multiple cruise ships have launched in Antarctica, and many more are due in the next few years. They are faster, bigger and more luxurious than ever before. Crucially, as environmental concerns grow, they are increasingly fuel efficient too – a benefit all round.
It’s a far cry from the wooden sailing ships that first ventured this far south, finally setting eyes on the seventh continent 200 years ago. (A Russian expedition mistook a glacier for the fabled landmass on January 27, 1820, although a confirmed sighting of the real white stuff came three days later from Irish captain Edward Bransfield, travelling on-board English merchant ship the Williams.)
During the last two decades, there have been races to ski, sled and scale our planet’s most inhospitable terrain, and now the baton has been passed to “intrepid” tourists eager to dip their toes into the Antarctic Peninsula, with the promise of a warm cabin every night.
Human presence constitutes a pin-dot on the sprawling, vast continent. But magnitude does little to disguise the fragility of this temperamental wilderness, and every visitor has a responsibility to cover their tracks.
Training citizen scientists
It’s an approach adopted by expedition company Polar Latitudes, who have been operating in Antarctica for a decade. They’ve pioneered a Citizen Science programme, offered on all voyages, giving passengers a hands-on insight into how the polar regions are changing.
Travelling aboard the Hebridean Sky, a sleek, elegant, all-suite vessel carrying a maximum 114 passengers, we’re on a mission to cross the Antarctic Circle, the furthest south leisure cruise ships journey, making island and continental landings along the way.
Penguins, leopard seals and humpback whales are undoubtedly the big nature hitters on a trip here, but there’s one organism more potent than all their flippers and flukes put together: a microscopic marine plant called phytoplankton.
A dip in the not-so-salty ocean
Sat on the edge of an inflatable Zodiac, I grip tightly onto a £5,000 CastAway device which I’m about to toss into the water. In the distance, moulting gentoo chicks are frozen to the shores of Couverville Island, wind rippling through their scraggy Mohicans.
Their stillness is a result of energy conservation rather than cold, a fact indirectly confirmed by our imminent scientific experiment. Our expensive piece of kit reveals the water salinity is less than average, a result of melting ice shelves flooding the ocean with freshwater – and bad news for phytoplankton, the bedrock of an aquatic food chain and a force for producing much of the air we breathe.
Data collected from our excursion will be sent to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography as part of a long-term study; in the short-term, it’s a sobering indication of havoc wreaked by climate change.
Signs of hope: whale sightings
Back on board, I study patterns in the clouds on behalf of NASA and upload photographs of humpback flukes to cetacean ID network Happywhale.com, who use the information to plot migration paths.
Not all our findings paint a picture of doom and gloom, though.
“We’ve seen more whales than ever in this season,” exclaims marine biologist and guide Jeff Reynolds, who cites the delayed effects of whaling bans as one explanation for the surge. Whatever the reason, during my short two-week stint in Antarctica, it’s a claim that – at least anecdotally – I can confirm.
In the glassy waters of Charlotte Bay, where an arc of white mountains creates blinding reflections, humpbacks roll beneath the surface, and in Paradise Bay, I watch their barnacled flukes refract golden light.
They aren’t the only animals on the move. Cartoonish Adelies, one of the only two truly Antarctic penguin species, are shifting southward as temperatures rise. On Torgersen Island, solar panels power a camera to collect census data, following a study which suggested some birds are over-wintering here.
With only flocks of angelic snow petrels remaining faithful to the pack ice, wildlife sightings thin out as we approach the Antarctic Circle. An amorphous boundary slowly shifting according to the earth’s axis, it’s really nothing greater than a line on a map. But for so many, it represents much more.
“This was a milestone in a sailor’s career,” exclaims the ship’s historian Seb Coulthard, who masterminds a celebratory, slapstick pantomime involving men wearing bras, women dressed as sea monsters and both sexes cajoled into kissing a wet fish. It’s all inspired by historical truths, of course.
Science holds the key
More filly-knicker frivolity is on the cards at Ukrainian research base Vernadsky, where anyone willing to leave their bra behind the bar is served a free drink. In winter, I remind myself, Antarctic nights are very long.
But the significance of our visit is far more serious. It was here, in 1985, that British scientists first detected a hole in the ozone layer, laying foundations for the Montreal Protocol – a global agreement to phase out substances responsible for its depletion.
“If only that document could be replicated for climate change,” sighs Seb.
It’s a long shot, but not wholly implausible. After all, so many answers are still locked in the ice. Even my own token contributions are supporting scientific investigations in a land with no sovereign, government or indigenous human population to speak of. “This place does not have a voice,” reiterates Seb in his on board lectures.
That responsibility falls to us.
How to plan your trip
A 15-day Crossing The Circle voyage with Polar Latitudes costs from £8,871, including polar jacket, daily guided excursions, two pre-voyage nights in Ushuaia and the citizen science programme. Departs Jan 31, 2021. Book through Swoop Antarctica (swoop-antarctica.com; 0117 369 0696), who can also arrange international flights.