Returning to Antarctic waters on the Our Far South voyage, WWF Marine Advocate Bob Zuur reflects on protecting this unique – and changing – wilderness.
One hundred years ago Robert Falcon Scott reached the South Pole. Fifty years ago his son, Peter Scott, founded the World Wildlife Fund. More recently, legendary natural history programme maker and WWF ambassador David Attenborough brought remarkable footage of the white continent’s wildlife to our television screens with Frozen Planet.
WWF has supported greater protection for Antarctica from our earliest days. So when an opportunity arose to join the Our Far South voyage to highlight the importance of, and the threats to, Antarctica and New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, I jumped at the chance. I sailed with nine other scientists and several communications experts, as well as everyday New Zealanders on the ice-strengthened Spirit of Enderby. We came from different walks of life, but we all experienced the same sense of awe at the sheer beauty and wildness of this incredible part of our planet.
There were many highlights, but the day we reached Scott Base was perhaps the most memorable. The winter staff at Scott Base welcomed us with a tour around the base, and that evening we sailed to Cape Royds, the site of Shackleton’s “Nimrod” expedition hut.
There was scarcely a breath of wind and the sinking sun cast a rosy hue on Mt Erebus, an active volcano about the same height as Mt Cook. A small group of emperor penguins looked up at amazement as the Spirit crunched through the ice just metres away. Crabeater seals slunk away as we approached. Minke whales fed on the rich bounty of the Ross Sea in gaps between the ice. Plumes of breath condensed in the freezing air as they dived. The sun dipped behind the Royal Society Ranges just after midnight – the end of a magical day in one of the Earth’s most wonderful places.
Some aspects were familiar to me from my studies of fish growth in the Ross Sea 35 years ago. But Antarctica is changing. Over the past three decades, ice shelves in West Antarctica have melted and the annual sea ice around the continent is diminishing as a result of climate change. Longliners are taking toothfish in the Ross Sea and trawlers are catching krill in the Southern Ocean. Japanese whalers catch hundreds of whales each year. Populations of some species, such as rockhopper penguins, have crashed.
Antarctica is important. Not just for the fantastic creatures we were privileged to meet. But also because Antarctic drives global climate and ocean circulation systems. The white continent and its surrounding seas are under threat. It’s up to us to ensure their protection.
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