With critical ice loss causing rippling effects on its rich biodiversity, Antarctica is indisputably at the frontline of climate change. Two hundred years after humankind first sighted the continent, a campaign helmed by the world’s leading explorers and experts in ocean conservation is underway to create what would be the world’s largest ocean protection act in history.
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.”
The challenge and the key to #Antarctica2020’s success is in galvanizing the public to understand the overall role Antarctica plays for the environment and our planet. Ashlan Gorse Cousteau, journalist and wife of Philippe Cousteau Jr., believes that what many people don’t realize is that Antarctica’s rich currents bring nutrients to the rest of the world’s ocean. By destroying Antarctica, we would effectively take those nutrients away, leading to the collapse of fisheries around the world. But if we can protect these highly productive areas in Antarctica, we will continue to bring those nutrients worldwide and support fisheries.
Though the science is evident, the public has yet to catch up. The responsibility now ultimately falls in the hands of scientists, conservationists, activists, and storytellers alike to communicate the urgency of the conservation of places like Antarctica. Cristina Mittermeier started her career as a marine biologist, but soon realized that when most people are confronted with scientific language, they don’t feel like they have enough knowledge to participate in the conversation. In addition, they often don’t want to hear the information being presented to them. She recalls being published in a coffee-table book that incorporated photography and noticing that people were engaging with the photos more than the texts. “I remember having this eureka moment in realizing, This is how we communicate with people who are not part of this small bubble of scientists,” she says. “So, I picked up a camera, and I went back to school to study photography. And that’s how it started.”
Now, Mittermeier is at the helm of the nonprofit SeaLegacy, alongside her partner Paul Nicklen, another renowned National Geographic polar photographer. They engage nonscientists in ocean conservation through expeditions and visual campaigns that tell the story of specific environmental issues on a global scale and call for urgent change. “My background as a marine biologist helps me tell the stories through the photographs that I know people are curious about. All I have to do is think about my own curiosity and the questions that I ask myself.”
British polar explorer, Sir Robert Swan—who, in 1989, became the first person to walk both the North and South Poles—is igniting a new generation of storytellers to drive change. Jacques Cousteau, a patron of his polar expeditions, challenged Swan to help preserve the Antarctic as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. “Young people are upset with the state of the planet they have inherited,” Swan says. “Anger, frustration, and finger-pointing at governments and corporations is all very well, but it will not change things. We have to turn this movement into acting on solutions.”
Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, agrees—and believes that individuals, brands and governments all have a role to play. “I think a lot of people are feeling extremely overwhelmed by the scale of threats that we’re facing. It’s easy to feel that way—these are complex challenges. Protecting places like Antarctica, this vast space, is something we can only do if we all work together and collaborate, that’s the only way.”
In 2012, Gutsch converted his agency from a design firm to a new form of an environmental organization after learning about the state of our oceans from legendary environmentalist Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd. The two groups collaborated to produce a running shoe with adidas made of fishing nets recovered from illegal poachers in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica – a prototype that has now grown into a global movement for change. Parley has also helped fund research and reporting on overfishing in the region, and worked with French free diver Guillaume Néry to sample microplastics in Antarctic waters.
“People often ask, what can I even do—I’m just one person,” says Gutsch. “It doesn’t matter who you are, there is something you can do. There is now a deeper understanding of climate change and a global awareness because everybody has experienced the damage to our environment. If we can create marine protected areas, they will help the ocean environment intercept and sequester carbon emissions. The planet has a strong resilience, and the oceans can recover.”
Through the new marine sanctuary proposed for Antarctica, we can prevent the fishing of krill, which are vital to the integrity of the ecosystem. Krill feed off of phytoplankton made up of carbon dioxide near the ocean’s surface and parachute down to the deep sea, injecting carbon into the ocean when they excrete their waste—comparable to how rainforests capture and absorb carbon. Except we keep overfishing and cutting down trees. This leads to an excess of carbon dioxide that disrupts the planet’s natural systems, causing a rapid increase in temperature, rapid acidification of the ocean, and rapid changes in planetary chemistry. Establishing this marine protected area is critical to maintaining climate change resilience and regenerating the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem.
Professional skier and activist Sierra Quitiquit, who is seeing her sport disappear before her eyes due to global warming, helped catalyze the #Antarctica2020 campaign on social media. “There’s an urgency behind the climate movement that I feel every single day. The next 10 years are going to shape the rest of our species’s existence,” says Quitiquit. “When I saw that we had an opportunity to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary, I was like, Let’s jump on this, let’s go for gold here. After hearing that so many of the members of CCAMLR were already on board and the only holdouts were Russia and China, I felt we needed to put some pressure on. We are running out of time…we need to think that we can do the impossible.”
In 2018, I stood on the bow of our expedition ship as we moved through the Lemaire Channel, an infamous passage off of the Antarctic Peninsula, with towering ice cliffs overhead and hundreds of icebergs floating by. I felt the power of the wind as it howled and a sense of awe at how such an inhospitable environment can make you feel so small, a speck in the vast, endless sea of floating ice shelves. The Antarctic landscape is alluring yet abrasive, fragile yet formidable, and its increasing delicacy is ever more apparent. We as individuals have the power to call on world leaders to recognize the urgency of creating the marine protected area for Antarctica by signing the Only One petition, serving as a symbol of a public call to action. We are at the precipice of a paradigm shift, one that will be a turning point for our planet. The future is in our hands.
Cascade explores the notion that every action, including inaction, is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. The choices we make now in regards to the planet will determine the trajectory of the human race for generations to come. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?