Antarctica is a place of brightness. When the summer sun shines, glaciers glisten and snow shimmers in saddles between ragged peaks. Light glints off the rounded backs of humpback whales surfacing, their fishy breath creating a golden cloud that wafts upwards into the slowly approaching night. The light is grey as I steer a kayak across a steely ocean. The paddle takes me past gothic skyscraper icebergs spectacularly eroded by the relentless elements. The sun slants through the mist, illuminating a previously shadowed iceberg. Its giant golf ball dimples and contrasting vertical channels are a revelation. Seconds later, 30 gentoo penguins zoom across the ocean towards me, each propelled clear of the water like a mini torpedo. I hold my breath as they plunge under my kayak, continuing unfazed. I am laughing, moved, awestruck and, bobbing in the emerging sunshine, reminded of the irrefutable importance of conserving Antarctica. Behind me is the Roald Amundsen ship, pride of the Hurtigruten fleet. Fellow passengers in company-issued red jackets are having their own moments of wonder at a penguin colony that stretches up a mountain, all the way to the clouds. We are probably the last tourists of the season to enjoy an Antarctic epiphany . While I paddle around the ice slurry, a world-changing event is unfolding on every other continent , and Covid-19 will soon terminate Antarctica’s 2019-20 summer tourism season. Right now, Antarctica is shivering towards the winter solstice, tilting away from the light and into months of darkness. The humpback whales have left for warmer waters and the penguins are fishing at sea. Next summer, there may not be any humans to witness their return. Not long ago, Antarctica was always like this. The first known sighting of the continent was just 200 years ago. On January 27, 1820, Russian Captain Fabian von Bellingshausen was unwittingly the first to spot the Antarctic mainland, followed three days later by Captain Edward Bransfield, on a British expedition, confirming the world consisted of seven continents. The late 19th century, the “heroic age of Antarctic exploration”, saw the likes of Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson take journeys of discovery, tragedy, bravery and extraordinary scientific advancement. During and after the second world war, several countries laid claim to parts of Antarctica for strategic military purposes and to search for natural resources. In 1959, after years of international tensions, 12 countries came together to sign the Antarctic Treaty, the instrument that controls the uses of the continent today. Fifty-four nations are now parties to the agreement. The treaty declares Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes and that scientific investigations will be conducted freely and shared. In 1991, the parties adopted the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol. This protects Antarctica as a natural reserve, manages environmental impacts and prohibits all exploitation of mineral resources until 2048. About 80 scientific research stations now dot the frozen continent, and the science has never been more important. Antarctica is experiencing some of the largest climate-change-induced temperature variations on the planet; in February, the temperature on the Antarctic peninsula topped 20 degrees Celsius for the first time since records began. Climate scientists are researching the melting ice sheets, and the implications for sea-level rise, while studies of ancient ice cores can help predict the severity of future climate-related effects. This vital research has been thrown a Covid-19 curveball, at a time when the world can ill afford to hit the snooze button on science. Australia is one of the leading Antarctic research nations. Dr Tas van Ommen, chief scientist for the Australian Antarctic Division, explains that to protect workers in remote stations from Covid-19, additional researchers will not be sent south this summer. Australia is planning to suspend major field work, instead focusing on maintaining stations. “For example, we were getting set for ramping up our capabilities for traversing deep inland in preparation for the oldest ice core, the ‘million-year ice core’ project, as it’s known,” van Ommen says. “But at this stage, we’re looking at a paused year across the full spectrum of environmental and climate work.” A spokesman for the British Antarctic Survey indicates his team are similarly scaling back planned research this year. Although van Ommen plans to resume his work as soon as possible, certain Covid-19 adaptations will remain. “If you work in climate science and you have to travel, increasingly you think about your carbon footprint,” he says. “Our response to Covid-19 has thrown up some interesting ways of getting around some of this.” Since 1958, tourists have been venturing south on ever more luxurious ships. With concerns about warming temperatures and melting ice sheets, many who are planning to visit would like to do so sooner rather than later. Before Covid-19 struck, the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which represents and regulates the industry, reported 2019-20 was to be Antarctica’s busiest season yet, with 80,000 tourists tipped to visit, mostly by cruise ship. Now IAATO’s 114 members and their would-be customers are consulting their crystal balls about when travel to Antarctica will resume. For us, it will be a focus on cleaning protocols, health testing, restrictions in place to certain areas, social distancing and careful management around meal times Damian Perry, managing director of Asia-Pacific and China, Hurtigruten An IAATO spokesman says tour operators will await the advice of experts and gateway countries (mostly in South America) before resumption. Meanwhile, cruise companies including Celebrity, Chimu Adventures, G Adventures, Ponant and Aurora are optimistically accepting bookings on a flexible basis for trips to Antarctica for summer 2020-21. “If guests can’t travel we give them significant incentives to choose another sailing date,” says Hurtigruten’s managing director of Asia-Pacific and China, Damian Perry. “We’ve seen very few people asking for refunds. Most people are quite keen to rebook and travel because that’s what they wanted to do originally.” As with science, Perry says, there will be permanent changes to the Antarctic cruise industry and he believes Hurtigruten’s small-vessel fleet will be an advantage. “For us, it will be a focus on cleaning protocols, health testing, restrictions in place to certain areas, social distancing and careful management around meal times,” he says. “It probably won’t be radical compared to what other companies have to do. I think the key is to be honest in how we operate, to reduce the risk for travellers.” Science is likely to also benefit from the resumption of tourism. On my journey south, the Roald Amundsen hosted three whale researchers gathering data for a variety of projects, and such partnerships are becoming increasingly common. “Researchers have used cruises to count penguins for the past 30 to 40 years, and that’s been incredibly successful,” says lead researcher Professor Ari Friedlaender, from the University of California, Santa Cruz. “As whale-research techniques progress, we may see similar benefits.” The science message was spread aboard the Roald Amundsen in other ways. Guests attended lectures on everything from albatross biology to climate change. At the Vernadsky Research Base, we met Ukrainian scientists and learned about their challenges. We tried science for ourselves, collecting and identifying tiny planktonic animals under the ship’s microscopes. Visitors participated in citizen-science programmes, such as a Nasa cloud project. We counted seabirds with the ship’s ornithologist and photographed whale tails for identification. Enlightenment comes from these first-hand discoveries, and the need for conservation is undeniable. Perry believes the Covid-19 pause has given travellers a chance to reflect, and many will have a newfound respect for the environment. When the industry bounces back, environmental credentials may matter more than ever. The Roald Amundsen boasts some of its own. Launched in 2019, it was the first polar expedition ship to have a hybrid electric propulsion system, its battery storage reducing CO2 emissions by about 20 per cent. Heat is recycled from the engines to the cabins and water heaters while kitchen waste and sewage are fed to the ship’s biodigesters. Hurtigruten was the first cruise line to eliminate single-use plastics and plans to run ships on biofuel. “We are trying to move expedition cruising into a sustainable space and we can’t do that only by saying it,” Perry says. “We have to have science back us up or even drive the changes as needed. We’re trying to be innovators and first movers, but our travellers hold us accountable and they’ll hold everyone else accountable, too.” For now, no one knows what the northern summer has in store for humans. But later, as Antarctica emerges from the darkness, humpback whales will again swim south, following the sun. Gentoo penguins will waddle across fresh snow, droplets of salty water clinging to their feathers, glistening gold in the strengthening light. Ice-core scientists and red-jacketed tourists will pray to be on their way south, too, sailing towards the brightness, for all of its enlightenment.