The Ross Sea
Spindrift for Schools

By  Dona Bertarelli

I want to thank all our partner schools, in France and Switzerland, and the 2,000 students who are following us. Whenever I can, I will be answering your many questions throughout this journey around the planet, a journey that we are taking together to discover the wonders of our world.
With all the crew of Spindrift 2, through our observations and our encounters, not only with marine life, but also with the islands and peninsulas that we pass, with the meteorological phenomena we experience, and with the birds and the stars that accompany us during our voyage, we will help you to live this adventure, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous book. We are calling our Spindrift for Schools series - Out of the Classroom.

A few days ago, we were sailing North of the Ross Sea, which is thought to be the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth. Joshua Reichert, who is executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts, is working with Governements, scientists, and marine advocates from across the world to create a fully protected marine reserve in the Ross Sea. Josh is a vissionary conservationist and chief architect of various environmental entities, including Oceana, The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the Global Ocean Legacy and the Campaign for America’s Wilderness.

In 2007 he set himself and the Pew Charitable Trusts the incredible task of creating the world’s first generation of fully protected marine parks. I am delighted that Josh has accepted to share with us his experience and his thoughts on the Ross Sea.

Dona Bertarelli, co-Chair, The Bertarelli Foundation and Josh Reichert, Managing Director, Pew Environment Group returned to Easter Island following the Our Ocean conference in October 2015. At the conference, President Bachelet of Chile announced her desire to support the Easter Islanders' campaign to protect the waters around their island from illegal fishing.

 

"THE ROSS SEA" by Joshua Reichert

If you trace your finger from the very top to the very bottom of a map of the world, running it across the ocean from the tip of Argentina to Antarctica and the South Pole, and continuing onward until you hit water again, you will find the Ross Sea.   

Once upon a time, I might have looked at that spot and thought, “What could possibly be there, other than ice, rock and some of the coldest weather on Earth.  What kind of life could exist at the bottom of the world, a region which is dark most of the year, where average temperatures drop to -50 degrees Celsius and the wind blows at 80 kilometers per hour, or more."

The answer is not what you might expect. The Ross Sea is among the most hauntingly beautiful and species-rich places in the world. Covering 3.6 million square kilometers in a horseshoe-shaped embayment, the region supports species that thrive today, much the same as they have for millennia.

It is estimated that 50 percent of the killer whales remaining on earth inhabit the Ross Sea; 38 percent of the world’s Adélie penguins and a preponderance of other species including emperor penguins, Antarctic minke whales, Antarctic petrels and Weddell seals. If you are in the right spot on the right day, you might gasp as a killer whale vaults from the water to grab a seal off the edge of an iceberg, or marvel as penguins line up to dive into the icy depths in search of food for themselves and their chicks, much like people line-up for a movie or a meal in a crowded restaurant.

The water color, in a certain light, is a dreamlike blue, washing against icebergs and uncountable pieces of sea ice that stretch like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle from the Antarctic coastline to the horizon. It is a place that might seem so remote and unforgiving as to be immune to interference by people. 

But it is not. For years, fishing vessels from a number of countries have been plying these waters, legally and illegally, in search of high value fish such as Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (commonly known as Chilean SeaBass) and krill, a small crustacean which underpins the Antarctic food chain and which is used for animal feed and nutritional supplements.

Despite this, the Ross Sea, the most southerly body of water on the planet, is considered to be one of the last ocean ecosystems in the world that is relatively undisturbed. In fact, a study published in 2011 in the journal Biological Conservation called the Ross Sea “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth.” As such, it is of great interest to scientists looking for clues as to how the world’s oceans functioned prior to the impacts of climate change, pollution and industrial fishing.

For all of these reasons, numerous countries, including the United States, New Zealand, and the European Union, have been working to designate the Ross Sea as a marine reserve. They have been joined in that call by more than 500 scientists who seek to safeguard the area for its environmental and scientific value. The ultimate goal of these efforts is the designation of a network of reserves protecting the waters around Antarctica—a continent where the land has already been set aside under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty as a place of peace and science.

There are not many places in the world like the Ross Sea—not only because of the incredible array of life that resides there, or its spectacularly beautiful landscapes, but also because it is a testament to the adaptability of nature to some of the most extreme conditions of life on the planet. However, it is important to realize that there are limits to that adaptability, limits beyond which all life, including our own, will fare poorly if they are passed. We are capable of staying on the right side of those limits. The real question is whether we have the political will to do so.

Joshua Reichert, executive vice president at the Pew Charitable Trusts