Let’s stand up for Antarctica

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to convince our governments to protect Antarctica. We shouldn’t let it pass.

Greenpeace -Alison op-ed photo
Scientists say that in order to tackle climate change and defend wildlife, 30 percent of the oceans must be fully protected by 2030, writes Sudol [Greenpeace]

I never dreamed of going to Antarctica.

In fact, I was never even interested in it. There are no trees, it looked cold and barren and I get seasick just thinking about whale watching. So when Greenpeace asked me if I’d like to be their first Ambassador to the Antarctic, which meant sailing down through the notorious Drake Passage on Greenpeace’s icebreaker, the Arctic Sunrise, which could potentially roll up to 70 degrees in rough waters, I paused.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. 

But then I thought, when would I ever get to do something like this again? It was a chance to be a part of one of the most exciting conservation efforts of our time, working to protect the Weddell Sea, an area the size of five Germanys (yes, they have to measure it in Germanys, it’s that big). It would be the largest protected area on earth. Yes, I might spend two weeks in digestive distress, yes I might roll out of my bunk, but I did that once on a tour bus and survived. 

I went. 

That landscape. I have never experienced anything like it. It was so uncompromised, so clean, so austere. It made me feel tiny, insignificant. Antarctica has dignity. It is awe-inspiring.

The glaciers are otherworldly, their size, breathtaking. The icebergs take on the most alien shapes and radiate pure, piercing Klein blue when the sun shines through them. 

The wildlife down there was ridiculous. It was like a Disney film: penguins leaping out of the water, minke and humpback whales skimming the surface, seals everywhere, sunning themselves, barking up a storm, and seabirds everywhere.  

Antarctica did not open its arms to welcome us. The creatures paid zero attention to us. Sometimes we had to wait for ten agonizing minutes while a line of penguins waddled past. It is a cardinal rule in Antarctica that you must give the wildlife room.


Sometimes we couldn’t go ashore because there were too many seals. You do not want to mess with seals. They’re fast, they bite, and their mouths are so full of bacteria that even a nip is an immediate evac situation. They also look a lot like rocks. 

Seals are just one of many dangers. The water is freezing and will kill you in minutes. We saw the aftermath of avalanches, heard the crack of calving glaciers. The weather can change on a dime. There are dive-bombing terns that can spit their stomach juices at you if they don’t like your face.

Despite the fact that Antarctica is clearly a force to be reckoned with, it’s also more delicate than it looks. Seabirds nest in the shale cliffs and you have to be very careful not to disturb any pebbles, lest they shake a nest loose. Moss can take hundreds of years to grow so you’d better not step on it or else you’re a big jerk. I’m pretty sure I stepped on some. I really tried not to, but there’s a lot to look out for (like seals) and those boots were so big.

Unfortunately, my big feet are not the only human impact. Climate change is hitting Antarctica hard.

Plastic pollution and industrial chemicals are starting entering these waters. There are so many strains on wildlife. There was a penguin colony which had only two surviving chicks out of 18,000 breeding pairs this year. The rest of the chicks starved. Think about that for a second. Two out of 18,000… 

There are strains on food supply. Ships equipped with giant vacuum-hoses are sucking up tiny shrimpy-creatures called krill – the main food source for nearly all the wildlife down there, from the penguins to the whales. 

Krill is apparently very useful for cat food and krill pills. So useful that we humans go all the way to Antarctica to get it.

There’s so much to focus on right now in the world, in this crazy time. Understandably, anywhere that isn’t exciting or cute or seemingly valuable to us is hard to care about. In those respects, Antarctica doesn’t have a lot going for it. It is cold, remote, dangerous and getting there is spectacularly unfun. Yet it is a biologically rich, important, wild, gorgeous, uninviting, booby-trapped, untamed land; and it needs to stay that way. It provides a safe space for a huge amount of wildlife to rest, feed and breed. It is important for the future of climate change. 

The ecosystem of the ocean is still largely a mystery to us, but it is clear that everything is interconnected in ways that we may never fully understand. But just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t vital to our own wellbeing, in the long run. 

Beyond that, Antarctica and the seas around it are just not for us. Antarctica belongs to itself. I respect that. It makes me want to stand up for it, just so we can leave it alone. 

Scientists say that in order to tackle climate change and defend wildlife, 30 percent of the oceans must be fully protected by 2030. In the next few weeks, governments are meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, to decide whether or not to protect the Weddell Sea. Already, 2 million people from around the world have said that they are in support of this. But we need to keep at it, keep being noisy, keep the pressure on.

We have an opportunity to make a huge impact on the future of our oceans. So please, voice your support in any way you can, bother your country’s government until they get the point. The seals, whales, penguins, seabirds and glaciers will thank you by continuing to do exactly the same thing that they do every day and simply not caring about us.

As it should be.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.