22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 27

Winter wonderland

Stanley Johnson At the beginning of 1984 — more than 23 years ago — I was lucky enough to be invited by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) to join its research and supply vessel, the John Biscoe, on a six-week trip to Antarctica. On that occasion, we left Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego, Chile's most southerly port, and crossed the dreaded Drake Passage below Cape Horn, to visit BAS bases on the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as the South Orkney Islands, South Georgia and the Falklands.

Looking back, what sticks in my memory is the vast array of Antarctic wildlife that I saw on that trip. To give just one example: as the John Biscoe left South Georgia on the last leg of our voyage (we were heading for Rio de Janeiro), we passed tiny Willis Island, home to no fewer than six million penguins. The sound and sight of a penguin rookery on that scale has to be seen to be believed.

In my book Antarctica: The Last Great Wilderness, which I wrote on my return, I tried to describe the effect that Antarctica had had on me: 'When the elephant seals and the fur seals mass alongside those penguins on the beaches; when the albatross and petrels and blue-eyed shags beat their way across the icy waves; when you glimpse at close quarters — as I did one manky morning in the Lemaire Channel — the blurred shape of a humpback whale, you can quite easily believe you are in paradise, and a very special paradise at that.'

When I first went to Antarctica there was virtually no organised tourism apart from a couple of vessels, like the Lindblad Explorer, making occasional visits. How things have changed! My second visit to Antarctica, earlier this year, was actually on a tourist ship. The Antarctic Dream was built in Holland in 1957, incorporated into the Chilean Navy in 1959, rebuilt completely in 2004/2005 and refurbished as an Antarctic expedition cruise ship. In its new configuration, there are 38 double cabins located on four decks.

The Antarctic Dream is by no means unique. Today, Antarctica is witnessing a veritable explosion of tourists, with up to 40 ships operating in Antarctic waters, mainly around the Peninsula, as well as — for those who have time for a more extended visit — South Georgia and the Falklands.

Towards the end of my most recent Antarctic voyage, the Antarctic Dream called in at Port Lockroy, on Goudier Island, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The base at Port Lockroy, designated an historic site and monument under the Antarctic Treaty, was built in 1944 to house a secret British mission codenamed Operation Tabarin. It was subsequently taken over by BAS for ionospheric research.

A few weeks before the Antarctic Dream arrived, Princess Anne herself had visited the site as patron of the United Kingdom's Antarctic Heritage Trust, a splendid organisation whose mission is to protect and restore Britain's Antarctic heritage.

If anyone is in a position to have an informed view on the issue of Antarctic tourism, it must be Rick Atkinson, who serves as the Trust's project leader at Port Lockroy. Atkinson spends four months of the year at Port Lockroy in conditions which exactly replicate those experienced by the wartime base. His team operates a post office, which each year handles over 40,000 items of mail, as well as running a souvenir shop and environmental monitoring programme.

'Most days,' he told me, as we sat inside the bunkroom in the original prefabricated hut first brought down to Antarctica in 1944, 'we have two or three cruise ships. Tourist numbers here have risen from 11,000 last year to 15,000 this year.' Taking Antarctic tourism as a whole, Atkinson believes that there could be well over 30,000 visitors each year and that some overall limit should be set under the Antarctic Treaty.

Atkinson believes, however, that the direct impact of tourism in Antarctica is minor compared with the impact of global warming. 'The biggest problem for Antarctica is going to be global warming. Compared to that, all other issues pale into insignificance.'

I had plenty of time to reflect on the long haul back to Ushuaia. I had brought with me a copy of the latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As I sat in my cabin turning the pages, I learned that currently the Antarctic Peninsula was registering the highest temperature changes in the world, over three times the global average. Losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica had very likely contributed to sea level rise between 1993 and 2003 and would, under all the projections, continue to do so in the future. The report further indicated ominously, 'Global average sea level in the last interglacial period (about 125,000 years ago) was likely four to six metres higher than during the 20th century, mainly due to the retreat of polar ice.'

Four to six metres! It wouldn't just be goodbye to the Maldives! It would be goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester Square!

I took the report up to the ship's bar and spread the document out on the polished wood in front of me. At that moment a majestic iceberg with a strange and wonderful bluish tinge floated past the wide plate-glass windows of the Antarctic Dream's observation deck. What an amazing, utterly stunning place Antarctica was, I thought. How incredibly lucky I had been to visit it not once, but twice in my lifetime.

I sat there, glass in hand, staring out at the waters of the Southern Ocean. Would the Antarctic miracle which I had first observed in 1984 and which, amazingly, seemed largely intact 25 years later, survive temperature increases of the magnitudes projected? What would happen to the penguins, the seals, the whales, the albatross and other seabirds? Should we just write them off ?

Another stunning iceberg came up over the horizon. (With global warming the glaciers are apparently calving all over the place). 'I don't want to live in a world without icebergs, Manuel,' I said to the barman. He nodded and poured me another pisco sour.

Stanley Johnson travelled courtesy of Discovery Initiatives, the leading nature travel specialists, on board the MTV Antarctic Dream (tel: 01285 643333; www.discoveryinitiatives.com). All Antarctic cruises arranged by Discovery Initiatives include a contribution to the Scott Polar Research Institute (www.spricam.ac.uk) and a climate care levy to offset carbon emissions. A 14-day trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, including all flights and accommodation in Buenos Aires, starts from E4,950 per person.