In Antarctica, tourists swim among penguins

HALF MOON ISLAND, Antarctica: "It's like getting stabbed," a tourist exclaims as he plunges into the three degree Celsius water, all under the intrigued gaze of a group of penguins.

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.

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To reach the Antarctic destination the 58-year-old Norwegian, Even Carlsen, travelled 14,000km, and spent thousands of euros.

Mostly indifferent to the bipeds donning neon-coloured windbreakers, wildlife abounds in the deafening silence of the icy landscape.

All around are penguins, as awkward on land as they are agile in water. Massive and majestic whales slip through the waves, and sea lions and seals laze in the sun.

View of Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis Papua) at the Yankee Harbour in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica, on Nov 6, 2019. (Photo: AFP / Johan ORDONEZ)

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Antarctica, a land of adventure without rulers, is "like the heart of the Earth", according to Marcelo Leppe, director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

He said it expands and contracts like a beating heart, while the mighty current which revolves around the continent is like a circulatory system absorbing warm currents from other oceans and redistributing cold water.

But this long tongue of land that stretches towards South America is warming rapidly. Its glaciers are melting and its ecosystem has been invaded by microplastics carried by currents.

"KEEP NOTHING BUT MEMORIES"

Tourists are also flocking to the area in greater numbers. This season nearly 80,000 visitors are expected, a 40 per cent increase compared to last year.

Antarctic tour operators however insist they are promoting responsible tourism.

"Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, keep nothing but memories," is their motto.

Barbijo penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) are seen at Orne Harbour in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica on Nov 8, 2019. (Photo: AFP / Johan ORDONEZ)

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