Record-breaking Antarctic temperatures and the re-emergence of international travel have reignited the debate about whether we should be traveling to polar regions at all. On a voyage to the frozen frontier, Sarah Reid searches for answers.

Within seconds of shimmying off the Zodiac, I’m engulfed by penguins. With their bold tangerine beaks and white-feather earmuffs, gentoo penguins are as charismatic as they come. With hundreds of juvenile gentoos slipping and sliding hilariously along the icy shoreline at Brown Bluff (a flattened volcano that erupted through a glacier), impatiently waiting for their waterproof feathers to grow so they can take to the sea, I can’t figure out where to point my camera.

“You’ll see plenty more penguins,” reassures a member of the expedition team on my voyage with Australian-owned Aurora Expeditions as I reluctantly climb back into the Zodiac following our first Antarctic landing.

But as we continue to cruise the Weddell Sea, an ultra-remote and soul-stirringly beautiful slice of the White Continent tucked around the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, we discover that the dramatic rocky beaches typically swarming with gentoo, chinstrap or Adélie penguins at this time of the season have been abandoned early.

“That’s the first time any of us have seen more seals than Adélies on that beach,” said Antarctic historian Steve Martin following our visit to Paulet Island later, where predatory seabirds called skuas skulked between dozing fur seals, methodically picking off a handful of penguins too weak to join their mates at sea. “It shows that things are… happening,” he added grimly.