South Georgia is an island of contradictions. Wildlife, brooding mountains surrounded by snow capped peaks, and receding glaciers along the horizon lie in stark contrast to the remnants of its brutal history.
As our Zodiac craft reached land at Salisbury Plain in South Georgia, king penguins and fur seals wandered over to greet us with curiosity. Along the coast, hundreds of seals dotted the mossy landscape. Crisp, salty air mixed with the smell of penguin guano as we made our way over to the colony of nearly 150,000 pairs of breeding king penguins. This was my first taste of the polar region.
In January 2018, I retraced explorer Ernest Shackleton’s steps aboard a month-long expedition cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula in search of answers to life’s existential questions and a deeper understanding of climate change.
The abundance of wildlife we saw at our first landing was the precise opposite of our next destination. I can still recall the dilapidated red buildings and deteriorating ship skeletons at what remained of Grytviken, the largest whaling station in South Georgia. Giant vats and steel cylinders of whale oil tanks served as an eerie and harrowing reminder of the whaling industry and the thousands of whale and seal massacres that took place in the Antarctic region. Hunted to the brink of extinction, fur seals were nearly wiped out in the early 20th century, subsequently leading to the rise of whaling. Public attitude and policy around commercial whaling only started to change in 1986, while a few countries, including Japan, Norway, and Iceland, persisted in sending whaling fleets to the Southern Ocean.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 with the intent of ensuring Antarctica is only used for peaceful purposes, scientific investigation, and collaboration on scientific research. Though the treaty holds all territorial claims in abeyance, hardly any of the ocean was protected. This began to change in 2016, when the Commission for the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) agreed to the establishment of a 1.55 million square kilometers marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Although there has been some progress, we need to be more ambitious.
In October 2019, for the eighth consecutive year, the proposal to protect the waters of East Antarctica was rejected due to a few nations’ avid fishing interests. “Setting up CCAMLR in 1980 seemed like the responsible thing to do, but it was actually our big mistake,” Sylvia Earle, an American oceanographer and explorer who has been at the forefront of ocean exploration for over four decades tells me. “CCAMLR’s role is to regulate the taking of wildlife in the waters around Antarctica so that we wouldn’t take too many. Well, how many is too many? How many can we extract and still have these fish survive? How many krill can we allow people to take and still have krill? They’re not putting on the balance sheet the value of the living krill—their carbon value and their climate change value. Maybe now, we are at the edge of a turning point.”
During CCAMLR’s annual meeting this October, world leaders will vote on creating the largest ocean protection act in history with marine protection areas that would encompass East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, and Weddell Sea. With 2020 marking the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica, leading ocean organizations have joined forces to raise awareness and show the urgency of its protection through the Only One petition campaign.
When all of Antarctica’s land animals depend on the ocean for their survival, why would we protect the land but not the ocean? What lessons have we still not learned from the human exploitation of Antarctica since its early explorers? Why do we continue to contradict all that is known to us by science?
“We have some leaders around the world who are casting doubt on the validity of scientists because it serves their short term purposes to be skeptics. But I’m a scientist. Scientists are natural skeptics. You always demand, ‘Show me, I want the evidence,’” Earle says. “We have to listen to the science and instill laws that make it illegal to do things that we know are really not the right thing to do. We’ve got a planet that works in our favor. It seems perverse that we’re trying to do everything to disrupt the basis of the very systems that keep us alive.”
According to Earle, no one knew just how magnified of an impact the polar regions have on climate, planetary chemistry, and the diversity of life until fairly recently. “We’ve got to understand that we need krill in the ocean to stabilize the way Antarctica functions. These creatures are naturally part of the Antarctic ecosystem,” she explains.
So, what is the importance of krill, a tiny little shrimp crustacean? Every single creature that lives in Antarctica feeds on krill in one way or another. The life cycle of krill is attached to the sea ice. In the winter, the ocean around Antarctica freezes and creates a massive shelf of ice in which the krill lay their eggs. When the babies are ready to hatch, they fall from the ice into the water and become a vital part of the food chain. As climate change warms the waters around Antarctica, we’re not only seeing the separation of massive ice shelves and enormous glaciers coming off of the continent, we’re also witnessing the disappearance of sea ice. Without sea ice, there is no krill. Without krill, there are no penguins, there are no whales, and there are no leopard seals.
Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of the famed undersea explorer and researcher Jacques Cousteau, is leading the #Antarctica2020 Only One campaign as a continuation of the commitment his family made two generations ago to help support the establishment of this marine protected area. “The constant struggle is that we continue to fight political battles,” says Cousteau. “Ultimately, in order to protect these places not just in Antarctica but anywhere in the world, it takes political wealth.
Fortunately, all countries that are part of CCAMLR support this initiative, except for Russia and China. And part of the reasoning behind that is their concern of shutting off areas for fishing.” Cousteau is focused on helping the public understand that “in order to fish more, we have to fish less.” By creating nursery grounds that have high biodiversity, these areas spill over and support the entire food web. “We have seen with our own eyes the incredible resilience of nature. #Antarctica2020 represents a recognition that nature has resilience and that nature can bounce back from devastating circumstances if we give it a chance.”