A submersible expedition to a region of the Antarctic seafloor that has never been visited by humans before has revealed a cornucopia of life and a thriving ecosystem in the frigid depths of the water surrounding the frozen continent.
The investigation is exploring the waters of the Weddell Sea, home to penguins, leopard seals, and whales, in a bid to highlight not only its astonishing array of life, but also its fragility and the necessity to protect it. Coordinated by the environmental group Greenpeace, the aim of the project is to record what is found to help build the case for creating the world’s largest wildlife reserve.
“Our first dive in the Antarctic Ocean was amazing,” explained John Hocevar, a marine biologist who piloted the submarine. “I really didn't know what to expect, but we saw so much life, it was very diverse. There were a lot of species of sponges, corals, sea squirts, a lot of different kinds of sea stars and their relatives, basket stars, feather stars.”
“It was just incredible how the whole bottom was carpeted with life.”
Despite the remote, harsh conditions and being thousands of kilometers from any permanent human settlements, the seas surrounding Antarctica are frequently patrolled by fishing and whaling fleets, putting the delicate ecosystem in very real danger of being damaged forever.
This has prompted conservationists and environmentalists to turn a vast 1.8 million square kilometers (700,000 square miles) of the waters surrounding Antarctica into a wildlife reserve, to protect not only the more charismatic whales and penguins, but also the myriad of other astonishing yet little-understood creatures that also call these seas home.
“This is an early stage of the research work we are doing, but there are clear indications of a vulnerable marine ecosystem in the initial footage gathered at the seabed,” said Dr Susanne Lockhart, an Antarctic biologist lucky enough to go down in the sub. “We’ll be doing further exploration of the bottom of the sea to help determine specific areas that should be a priority for protection from commercial fishing in these pristine waters, as well as building a body of evidence to support proposals for protection in the Antarctic Ocean.”
The proposed new reserve is being supported by the German government, and the proposition will be presented to the Arctic nations at a conference in October this year. These nations will then make a decision on whether or not to go through with it.