mperor penguins rocketing out of the water, pods of orcas ‘spyhopping’ through gaps in ice floes… you will almost certainly have gazed at the wildlife treasures of the Ross Sea even if you might have trouble finding it on a map. It’s a favourite location for the BBC’s Natural History Unit, though is so remote that only two commercial companies offer trips here.
Located 1,300km from the South Pole on the opposite side of the ‘White Continent’ to the more familiar Antarctic Peninsula where most tourist vessels head, this faraway body of water is a glittering world of sea and ice, studded with massive icebergs and ice-cliffs. Yet what really sets the ecosystem apart is that it is relatively intact: most of the top predators – various whales, seals and penguins – haven’t been hunted, and stocks of fish and krill are healthy, too.
About 240,000 emperor penguins – over a quarter of the world’s total – live in the Ross Sea. It also hosts huge numbers of Adélie penguins, Weddell seals and Type C orcas, a form that is found nowhere else.
But harvesting of Antarctic toothfish (a poorly known, slowgrowing species marketed as ‘sea bass’) threatens to encroach on this untouched wilderness, so for the past five years conservationists have fought hard to get most of the sea declared a marine sanctuary.
Much geopolitical wrangling has ensued, with Russia and (at least until 2015) China proving especially reluctant to sign up to the international proposals. Hope is not lost, however, because Russian negotiators have finally agreed to discuss the latest plan. So with luck 2016 may see the creation of a Ross Sea reserve and this biologically rich region will survive as a near-flawless living laboratory. Rob, a policy manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, spoke to our features editor Ben Hoare.
IT’S A GLITTERING WORLD OF SEA AND ICE, STUDDED WITH ICEBERGS AND ICE-CLIFFS”
Learn more at www.whales.org and www.lastocean.org