Explore the Ross Sea: The Last Pristine Marine Ecosystem Left Standing

The most coveted part of our oceans and a world teeming with invaluable marine wildlife, the Ross Sea is both the richest and most vulnerable ecosystem on earth. Explore the Ross Sea on an Antarctica cruise, and discover why this is considered to be the last pristine marine ecosystem left standing.

island with snow and ice in the sea

Beaufort Island in the Ross Sea. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

With the menace of industrial fishing threatening its future, and an international conglomerate struggling to maintain it pristine, the Ross Sea has been the subject of much human fascination ever since it was discovered. Found off the southwestern of Antarctica, itself the most unspoiled continent on earth, the Ross Sea is valued for supporting countless colonies of mammals, sea birds, and invertebrates. It may only make up 2% of the Southern Ocean, yet boasts more marine biodiversity than the remaining 98%. Mind you, the tiny portion that is the Red Sea still comprises over 2.36 million square kilometres of seas. And not just any seas, but waters that are an irreplaceable breeding ground for several types of whales, and home to various species of penguins and seals, as well as hundreds of millions of small crustaceans and countless plankton on which the larger predators feed. When it comes to marine biology, the Ross Sea is an endless laboratory, one that offers scientists an incredible look into what constitutes a perfect and balanced ecosystem.

The discovery & importance of the Ross Sea

Iceberg floating in the Ross Sea

Iceberg in the Ross Sea. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Experts claim that the Ross Sea is the most researched slice of the entire Southern Hemisphere, with data collecting being an ongoing project since British explorer James Clark Ross first recognised its existence in 1841. He was attempting to reach the South Magnetic Pole and managed to find one of the most easily accessible landing sites on the Antarctic continent. Due to warm currents which regularly flow in this section of Antarctic waters, the coastline  has almost been totally explored, albeit only for geological purposes. Although sections of the Ross Ice Shelf freezes every year, it’s still one of the sections of Antarctica with the least amount of ice cover and is regularly traversed by tourist expedition cruises.
Over the last 175 years, the Ross Sea has never fallen victim to pollution or gross human influence of any kind. It has never been affected by mining, or invaded by foreign species of wildlife and has, so far, been protected from mass commercial fishing. Instead, it has been wholly shaped by natural elements; by strong polar currents and annual freeze-overs, resulting in waters that are perennially enriched by nutrients, attracting a phenomenal number of sea creatures.
What makes the Ross Sea so important is that the great majority of the marine fauna found here is not found anywhere else on earth. This is the reason cruises to Antarctica are so enormously appealing. The Ross Sea is not just breathtakingly beautiful, it is also exceptionally unique. Moreover, the Ross Sea and its virgin environment give researchers an opportunity to study the true impact of climate change and human influence. By knowing what does and doesn’t occur in the last pristine marine ecosystem left standing, we can better understand the kind of detrimental effect we have on our planet, both on land and under the seas.

Wildlife of the Ross Sea

emperor penguins on the ice

Emperor Penguins. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

In total, this area is home to a dozen or so species of sea birds, hundreds of different fish species, thousands of invertebrates, and about a dozen mammal species of all shapes and sizes. Adelie is the most abundant species of penguins in the Ross Sea, although smallest in size. On the opposite end of the spectrum is where you’ll find the mighty Emperor Penguin, the largest of its kind in these seas, as well as 3 different species of killer whales, blue whales, and more than 20,000 minke whales. Sea birds are abundant as well, with literally millions of Antarctic petrels, snow petrels, and skuas, all feeding off the endless swarms of krill, fish, and squid.
Yet the marine richness of the Ross Sea is also its weakest link.
If only it wasn’t so damn inviting…

Commercial fishing: The Ross Sea’s biggest threat

Ice floating on the Ross Sea

Ice floating on the Ross Sea. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Representing a colossal opportunity for commercial fishing, the Ross Sea is coveted for more than just its evocative beauty. Over the last decade, an international delegation has been fighting to ensure the Ross Sea remains as perfect as it is today yet several nations, intent on fishing it in industrial quantities, have been blocking its realization. It is estimated that tonnes of Antarctic toothfish are being hunted in the Ross Sea annually, along with tonnes of fellow top predators, threatening the very delicate balance of the Ross Sea. The toothfish is so pivotal to the ecosystem of the Ross Sea, that if numbers were to drastically plummet, a particular type of killer whale which feeds on it exclusively would be completely wiped out.
For some nations, the Sea represents the most prolific fishing waters on earth and their struggle to maintain fishing rights in the region are immensely fervent, as one can imagine. Calls to proclaim the Ross Sea a protected marine reserve have so far gone unanswered or, at the very least, met with quite a bit of resistance. Just last year, a blocking was made by Russia during the 5th international delegation meeting held in Hobart. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The joint US/New Zealand contingency made remarkable progress in recent years, even adding China to the long list of supportive signatories to the Ross Sea protection proposal. Historically, China and Russia have held the most interest in the fishing opportunities of Antarctic waters, and getting at least one of the two on board is an impressive achievement.

Snowy mountains next to the sea with reflection

The beautiful scenery of Antarctica.

Will the last piece of the Ross Sea protection puzzle come into place in the next few years? The world can only wait and hope.
Want to experience the last pristine marine ecosystem on earth? Join us as we traverse the Ross Sea on an Antarctica cruise expedition, and come discover this most precious corner of Antarctica. Chimu Adventures can bring you to one of the last untouched destinations on Earth: Antarctica. Click here for more information about Chimu.

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”