A Trip South to Antarctica’s Ross Sea
The Ross Sea, a 1.9 million square mile (3.6 million square km) stretch of ocean off the coast of Antarctica, has been nicknamed “The Last Ocean.” And it’s not just a ploy to get your attention. In 2008, researchers mapped out human impacts on the ocean globally and this small area of the Southern Ocean proved to be the most pristine piece of the ocean left on Earth.
John Weller, a photographer and conservationist, has captured the remote beauty of this ecosystem, highlighting the amazing wildlife, including whales, seals, penguins, fish and krill, and the ice they live alongside. Despite the great distance from civilization, the Ross Sea faces threats from commercial fishing, whaling and extreme climate change.
Map of the Ross Sea
The Ross Sea is a 1.9 million square mile (3.6 million square km) stretch of ocean off the coast of Antarctica.
Antarctic Pack Ice
Every year as the sun disappears for the winter, the surface waters around Antarctica freeze into a slab of ice 10-feet thick, which effectively doubles the size of the continent. In the summer, the slab of ice breaks up into pack ice, which eventually drifts out to sea and melts, only to be replaced the next year. Sea ice is a critical habitat for nearly all the denizens of Antarctica, and is changing quickly in response to climate.
Ross Sea Ice Shelf
Antarctica is almost entirely covered by ice sheets up to two miles (3 km) thick, which contain roughly 70% of the world’s freshwater. The great ice sheets spill out to sea as floating ice-shelves and ice-tongues, which routinely calve massive icebergs into the waters around Antarctica. The Ross Sea ice shelf is one the largest ice shelves in the world. It is the size of France, and though the 200-foot-tall cliffs of ice extend 500 miles, that is just, as they say, the tip of the iceberg. Most of the ice lies hidden below the cold, dark salt water.
Adélie Penguin Jumping Out of the WaterSmall Adélie penguins live throughout the Antarctic, but are most abundant in the area of the Ross Sea. They lay eggs on the few rocky outcrops of land not covered in ice. Scientists have determined that some colonies have existed in the same spots for millennia.
Emperor Penguins on the IceStanding at twice the height of the Adélie penguins, emperor penguins are the largest of the penguin species and can grow to be 100 pounds. This species breeds directly on the ice: a female lays her one egg and then passes it to the male to protect while she returns to the cold water to forage.
Antarctic Minke WhaleThe elegant Antarctic minke whale feeds on krill (tiny crustaceans) during the winter. Groups of minke whales often are found on the edges of pack ice feasting so that they can grow thick layers of blubber as the winter approaches.
Orcas in the Antarctic
Three distinct types of killer whale can be found in the Antarctic, each with a different habitat and diet preference. One type of orca preys almost exclusively on the Antarctic minke whale, another on seals, and the last eats fish. None have yet been described as separate species, but genetic testing will help scientists know if they should be.
Snow PetrelThe white body of the snow petrel blends in with the stark Antarctic landscape, accentuating the beautiful black eyes and beak of this seabird. They hunt in the sea ice, feeding on krill and fish. They are the southern-most breeding animals in the world, nesting in exposed rock cliffs, some sites hundreds of kilometers into the interior of the continent. Many of these nest sites have never been seen by human eyes.
Weddell Seal in Antarctic WaterWeddell seals grind their teeth on holes in the ice to keep them open to their comings and goings between ocean and air. Their dives can last over an hour when they are looking for an opening in the ice and go to depths of 600 meters (almost 2000 feet) when they are looking for their next meal of Antarctic toothfish.
Antarctic Ocean Floor
The dark seafloor beneath the ice is covered with sea stars, urchins and ribbon worms looking for their next meal, which can come from sponges, dead animals that float to the sea floor, or even other sea star species.
Anemone in Cold Antarctic WaterDespite the cold and dark environment, soft-bodied animals like anemones abound under the ice. Using their sticky arms, they grab zooplankton, which can be hard to come by during the long winter with no sunlight. Their colors are normally hidden in the dark waters beneath the ice pack, but Weller was able to capture the rarely-seen beauty.
Cold-Water Sea SpiderSmall amphipods, the blue bug-like creatures, can be seen here catching a ride on this enormous sea spider as it makes its way across the bottom. Many Antarctic creatures, like the dinner-plate-sized sea spiders, have evolved to a gigantic size to cope with the extreme environment. Sea spiders in temperate waters are rarely bigger than a quarter.
Isopod in a Glass HomeAn isopod stands on top of a glass sponge, extending its legs to find zooplankton. This delicate sponge is small, but some glass sponges can grow to the size of a 50-gallon drum and live for centuries if undisturbed.
Fish Adapt to Icy Water
This shadowy fish, Trematomus bernacchii, is well adapted to the ice-cold water of the Antarctic: its blood comes equipped with natural antifreeze. This is a necessary adaptation because the surrounding water averages minus 1.8 degrees Celsius, just above the freezing point of saltwater.
Floating Antarctic Comb Jelly
Bright colors seem to jump off of this comb jelly, or ctenophore. The rainbow effect appears when light emanates from comb jellies' namesake combs, which are rows of cilia that run up and down their bodies and propel their soft bodies through the water.
Phytoplankton Bloom in the Antarctic
Seasons in the Ross Sea are marked by ice freezing and melting, and these processes mix the seawater and redistribute salt and nutrients. The influx of nutrients cause phytoplankton to bloom, forming patches of algae in the Ross Sea that are so large that they can be seen by satellite. Here you see polar algae up close, under the lens of a microscope.
Protecting a Pristine Ocean
While the Ross Sea is perhaps the most pristine place left in the world’s ocean, the human footprint is changing this last place quickly. Even as the effects of climate change are redefining the very fabric of the ecosystem, we have started to exploit the natural resources of the Ross Sea. And though the Ross Sea is in much better shape than the rest of the world’s ocean, protecting this last wilderness could help set the stage for a new age of protections for other critical marine ecosystems around the globe.