Good News for the Antarctic

A year ago at this time we were on our way to Antarctica on a Russian oceanographic vessel. Among the things we learned en route to and on the planet's coldest, wildest continent (besides the fact that we could ride out 50-foot waves—see slide show) was that the surrounding Southern Ocean waters are massively important both in sustaining the world's ocean food chain (through the abundance of tiny, bottom-of-the-food-chain krill, among other things) and in driving the deep-water currents that are crucial in shaping Earth's climate and transporting nutrients (as extra-cold, extra-salty water sinks to the bottom and moves across the ocean floor). All of which makes this a week to celebrate.

That's because 24 countries and the European Union have agreed to protect an ecologically vital part of the Southern Ocean known as the Ross Sea by creating the world's largest protected marine area—600,000 square miles, and the first such area to be established in international waters rather than the waters of one country. The deal is far from perfect (it expires in 35 years, primarily because of objections from Russia, which is trying to protect its fishing industry), but the hope among conservationists is that this will be the first in a series of Antarctic ocean sanctuaries—protected areas that might help stop us humans from screwing up yet another unique, life-sustaining portion of our fragile planet.

How the Two of Us Ended Up On an Adventure In Antarctica

In early 2015 Pamelia and I decided to seize an extraordinary opportunity. We would join an expedition to the planet's largest, coldest, most remote wilderness led by Mark Carwardine, a British zoologist, conservationist, wildlife photographer and writer whom we had admired for more than 20 years.

No, these seemingly headless king penguins aren't the two of US, but they're among the many unforgettable sights that we would see in our voyage to the deep, deep, deep South.  (Feel free to invent a funny caption.)

The trip would begin October 30 on a Russian ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. That scientific research vessel, chartered by One Ocean Expeditions, would take us from the world's southernmost city, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the tip of South America, to a succession of unique and amazing places: the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Shetland Islands and Antarctica. We would be at sea and away from all distractions—no phones, no Internet—for 19 days. 

We didn't know at the time that during the trip we would twice battle hurricane-force winds and monster waves in Earth's roughest sea, the Southern Ocean. Or that we would have even closer encounters than we had imagined with hundreds of thousands of birds and mammals in settings almost too spectacular for words. Or that one of us would come home as a winner of an international photography competition. Or that Pamelia would invent a new art form involving penguins. Or that by journey's end people would break into applause at the very sight of the shirt I was wearing.

South Georgia would be one of the most dazzlingly beautiful spots we would visit, though every destination was stunning and some places were wild in more ways than one. 

Pamelia and others learned that the best way to get Antarctic wildlife to approach was to sit still and wait. That time of quiet watching brought other rewards, including insights into the animals' behavior and a deep sense of connection to the animals and the place. 

With a stellar cast of about 100 shipmates—including not just Mark Carwardine but also one of the world's 40 most influential nature and landscape photographers, a longtime editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, an ornithologist, a research entomologist, a primatologist, a cosmologist, a geophysicist and a wildlife filmmaker and former producer of David Attenborough's BBC documentaries, who would be shooting footage during the trip—we would venture into the realm of great explorers such as Capt. James Cook, the heroic Ernest Shackleton and history's most important naturalist, Charles Darwin. 

Little did the others know that Pamelia and I would be smuggling Charles Darwin onto the ship, but I will save that story for later.

So come along with us, our naturalists' notebooks and our cameras as we share this adventure at the Bottom of the World in a series of diary entries that will unfold before you in the days ahead and may change the way you view our planet.

Oh, the places you'll see.

—Craig Neff and Pamelia Markwood