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Antarctica's Ross Sea Home to the World's Newest and Largest Marine Protected Area

Antarctica's Ross Sea Home to the World's Newest and Largest Marine Protected Area

I've been waiting eight years to tell the story of one of the most extraordinary days of my life when I walked on a frozen sea following penguins on a quest to feed their young. My opportunity to write about my Antarctic experience came recently when Twitter links delivered the very welcome news that, after a decade of struggle by scientists, policy-makers and environmentalists, the Ross Sea in Antarctica was declared a marine protected area. When the agreement goes into effect next December, it will be the largest expanse of protected ocean in the world.

International protection for marine ecosystems is exceedingly difficult to achieve because all parties, in this case 24 nations, must agree. Ross Sea protection was first proposed in 2012 by New Zealand and the United State, but for years it has been blocked by Russia. But in tense negotiations this year, Russia, China and the other nations that make up the Commission for Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) agreed to set aside 1.55 square kilometers (nearly 600,00 square miles) from most commercial fishing. It’s not a perfect agreement, compromises were made that kept some areas open for tooth fish and krill fisheries. In part of the Ross Sea MPA, the treaty allows for “scientific” fishing, in which commercial fishing operations agree to tag and release a small portion of their catch to collect data about the state of the population in later years. Still, as Exploratorium friend and collaborator, Cassandra Brooks describes in a recent National Geographic blog, this is a huge step forward in helping protect what many consider to be the most pristine, untouched ocean on the planet.  



The World’s “Last Ocean”

Near the Antarctic continent, the Ross Sea is a living laboratory for scientists to study what many consider to be the only remaining intact marine ecosystem in pristine condition. Although covered in ice much of the year, the Ross Sea supports a dense population of mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates and plankton. Some of its iconic species include orca and minke whales, Adelie and emperor penguins, Wedell, crabeater, and leopard seals, and myriad krill and fish, including the commercially-valuable Antarctic toothfish (also known as Chilean seabass). 


Adelie penguins at Cape Royds, at the edge of the Ross Sea (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)

I’ve had the immense privilege of visiting this frozen ocean through two Antarctic expeditions funded by the  National Science Foundation, where the Exploratorium team spent some time at the Cape Royds research camp of penguin biologist David Ainley. David is a hero in this story, both for bringing attention to the immense scientific and ecological value of the Ross Sea and fighting for its protection. He was also a correspondent and collaborator in our Ice Stories project, where he blogged and did live webcasts with us. The Exploratorium team included the brilliant photographer and conservationist John Weller and talented, tirless video producer Lisa Strong. We also owe a debt to teacher and Ice Stories correspondent Jean Pennycock.  



John Weller with penguins (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)


Life on the Edge

My connection to the Ross sea first began in 2001, when I first visited David’s camp at Cape Royds and spent time with Adelie penguins in their breeding colony. What I saw was the birds as most people know them through wildlife films and the animated movie Happy Feet. They waddle around industriously like toddlers with their pants around their ankles, gathering pebbles for their nests and squabbling with their neighbors. David and his collaborators study everything about the penguins, from the weight they gain coming from feeding forays to their success at raising chicks who come back to the colony to breed years later. 

Penguins are weighed everytime they exit and enter their nesting study site at Cape Royds (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)

Unlike their larger Antarctic cousin, the emperor penguin, Adelie penguins raise their chicks together in pairs and take turns traveling to breaches in the sea ice to hunt for food. Early in the breeding season that can mean a 15 km (nearly 10 mile) traverse across the frozen sea, a desperately long way to walk for these stubby-legged, ten-pound  birds. But they are nothing if determined and will scrabble over icebergs and cliffs with their crampon-like claws to obtain food for their chicks. If they can make it to the ice edge, the Ross Sea provides for them with abundant krill and silver fish for the taking. Through his research, David Ainley has documented that an adult Adelie on a foraging trip can swallow up to 1000 grams (2 pounds) of krill or fish, about a fifth its body weight. That’s like sitting down to a 30-pound meal—hard to imagine doing that even considering how we tend to gorge ourselves at Thanksgiving. 

In 2008 during the Exploratorium's Ice Stories web project, we visited Cape Royds a bit later in the season, when the chicks are larger and hungrier and the parents harder pressed to keep them nourished. Luckily for them and us, a crack in the sea ice had opened only two miles from the nesting colony and we could see them waddling to and from their feeding grounds. So we struck out and followed them over the frozen ocean to glimpse the sea birds in their natural element. 

Tale of Two Penguins

It was the wildest and most extraordinary day of my life. As we trudged along with the penguins, it was like rush hour on the freeway with dozens of birds tottering past each other as if on the way to work and back. Cold wind blew across the ice as we drew closer to a faint break in the ice. As we approached the crack, the scene was calm with clumps of penguins lounging on the ice. Then the water started roiling with waves, and I caught sight of some glistening rounded backs in the gray sea.


Penguins break the water after diving (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)

Suddenly, penguins were all over the surface dolphining out of the water and gulping air through wide-spread beaks. I could hear and smell their musky exhalations as they approached. The birds were flying through the air, like so many chubby missiles, their eyes piercing and round. This seemed like an utterly different animal, Charlie Chaplin suddenly transformed into a fierce predator--one superbly adapted to hunting in the icy ocean. One of our companions remarked that it was not a good day to be a krill with such a efficient, determined enemy. 

Penguins leaping out of the water during a feeding bout (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)


The fact that they worked in groups, may have been partly as defense against predators, but also perhaps it made them more efficient in rounding up and surrounding their prey. There appeared to be reluctance to entering the water, the birds seemed to need the encouragement of a crowd, one hanging back to the last moment protesting as it went. Then again, the Ross Sea averages about a degree above freezing, I might be hesitant to plunge in too!

Formation of penguins egging each other on to dive in (Photo by Mary Miller/Exploratorium)


After a couple of hours, we turned back toward camp, cold, tired and awestruck. To experience that kind of raw nature, watching these magnificent birds hunting and diving was something I never thought I’d see. But although my connection to the Ross Sea is personal, you don’t have to have been there to understand what a special place it is and how important it is to preserve wild places in the world. With the oceans becoming more stressed from over-fishing and impacts of pollution and climate change, there need to be more places like the Ross Sea.