Honoring Life in the Ice

Paul Nicklen

The icy heartbeat of our planet is like nowhere else on Earth. Today, Antarctica is facing existential threats that will affect both the health of the global ocean and the stability of our climate, and therefore, all of us.

Image © Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen

Image © Paul Nicklen

The crossing

The first time I set out to cross the Drake Passage—the 600-nautical-mile wide body of water that separates the southern tip of South America from the Antarctic Peninsula—I thought I was prepared.

This voyage is a rite of passage as much as it is a necessity for those wishing to venture forth into the Seventh Continent.

But the realities of what can only be described as violent seas, especially for people like me with a talent for seasickness, are strongly accentuated when the crossing is made on a very small sailboat.

Of all the continents on Earth, Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest · Paul Nicklen

I have since made the journey many times, mostly on larger expedition ships that might take a couple of days to reach our destination. For a mere 50-foot long vessel powered by wind, however, the ordeal lasts up to a week and can only be described as utter misery. This was my first introduction to the mysterious land that is Antarctica. I do not recall much from those seven days at sea, but when we came across the South Shetland Islands—a small group of islands just 120 kilometers north of the Peninsula—I knew we were almost there. After spending most of my time in the bowels of the sailboat, barely able to move, eat, or drink, I felt a deep sense of relief. The sea did not necessarily quiet down, but we started to see icebergs floating out into the ocean and rafts of penguins feeding in the open waters.

Brave Adélie penguins leap into the icy waters of the Falkland Islands · Paul Nicklen

As a photographer, I am trained to take pictures. Relentless in this pursuit, I have learned over the years how to capture images regardless of the emotions pouring through me. Yet, when we first sighted the jagged contours of the white landmass, shrouded in early morning fog, I could barely hold back tears of joy. This moment had arrived after hours of scanning the horizon from the small deck of the sailboat.

In the face of such a vital and far-flung ecosystem, I was so overcome with gratitude for the opportunity just to be there that I never even lifted my camera.

A second chance

We landed at the aptly named Half Moon Island, between the glistening jewels of Livingston and Greenwich Islands. Walking tentatively among resting elephant and Weddell seals that formed a line along the beach and up a small ridgeline, I looked out over thousands of gentoo and chinstrap penguins dutifully going about their nesting chores. The sky was punctuated by the comings and goings of kelp gulls, blue-eyed shags, and the sinister paths of the occasional skua. As the morning light revealed the bright accents of their feathers, I just stood there, allowing the blissful scene I had imagined many times before to permanently imprint itself on my brain.

How could it be that I was amid so many undisturbed creatures? On assignment in the Arctic, at the opposite end of the Earth, I had spent a lifetime waiting patiently to catch sight of an elusive polar bear, and devoted months to tracking narwhals in vain. But here in Antarctica, from the moment I set foot on land, I encountered a profound abundance of wildlife. 

Very sociable birds, chinstrap penguins form enormous colonies next to the shoreline of Deception Island, an active volcano close to the Antarctic Peninsula · Paul Nicklen

At that moment, standing in that exact spot, I felt a wave of hope wash over me.

Despite their near decimation mere decades ago, when whalers and sealers hunted them relentlessly, these animals showed no aversion or apprehension toward our presence.

At the height of the commercial whaling era in the twentieth century, several species of whale were almost entirely wiped out. Nearly every fur and elephant seal on these naturally crowded beaches was killed. Finally left alone, most of the land species have recovered, but the whales have not. The Antarctic waters were once teeming with whales, home to hundreds of thousands of them. Yet now, the fin and right whale populations have been very heavily depleted. While humpbacks have slowly begun to return to Antarctica, the blue whale—the largest animal ever to exist on Earth—does not, so far, look set to recover.

When millions of krill-eating whales were hunted, the Antarctic marine ecosystem suffered greatly · Paul Nicklen

These remarkable creatures have given us a second chance. But how can we work to preserve the Antarctic ecosystem if not everyone has a clear understanding of what makes this unique continent thrive? It’s often easier to gain support to protect the more popular, beloved species such as penguins, seals, and whales, but it can be a stretch to feel a similar level of affection for the deep-water dwelling, relatively uncharismatic, shrimp-like krill. Yet krill are incredible beyond measure.

Dispelling the myths

People often think of the vast stretches of floating sea ice surrounding Antarctica as desolate and lifeless. However, beneath these tremendous frozen expanses grow tiny single-celled marine organisms known as “phytoplankton”. Phytoplankton are in turn a food source for krill, and krill are essential to all life in Antarctica. Virtually every species in the Southern Ocean depends on krill, from penguins and albatrosses to seals and whales.

When it comes to biomass, krill outweigh the world’s entire human population. Stop for a moment, and imagine that.

Sadly, even the plentiful krill is now threatened by two major forces: the destruction of food sources due to disappearing ice caused by a warmer planet, and overfishing for human consumption, with hundreds of millions of pounds worth mined within key feeding habitats for marine mammals and penguin colonies. For most of us, krill is not on our radar, and it’s not easy to make the connection between an omega-3 supplement and the basis for the whole Antarctic ecosystem.

Seemingly devoid of life at first glance, the ice of Antarctica supports a wealth of ocean creatures · Paul Nicklen
Every fish and mammal in Antarctica relies on krill, the foundation of the food chain · Paul Nicklen
Crabeater seals rest and breed on pack ice, feeding in the surrounding waters · Paul Nicklen

To protect our planet, we must value each and every species. Take the leopard seal. A significant part of my life’s work is dedicated to dispelling the myths about one of Antarctica’s most powerful hunters, and about all predators, in an effort to encourage compassion and better understanding.

Feeding on penguins, leopard seals are too often seen as villains among a watery cast of characters, and if truth be told, these seals are frightening at first, particularly when you get into the water with them.

Leopard seals are powerful, curious, and intelligent hunters · Paul Nicklen
For anyone, including me, plunging into the world of ocean predators is a leap into the unknown. But each time I put my fears aside, the reward is priceless.

If an image I make moves people to act, changes perceptions of these animals, and helps to preserve their habitats, then the risk is entirely worth it. Predator or prey, we must respect the inextricable connections between species and their environment. We must understand how human activities affect them, and how in turn, they affect us.

Knowledge is hope

Nature has provided me with purpose and passion, and a life that I give thanks for every day. On my deathbed, it is the memories of countless life-altering encounters with nature that will be with me. When I am lucky, these precious moments translate into the stories I share with all those who will listen: the story of the female leopard seal who took me into her care, attempting to feed me penguins for four days straight; the heart-racing second when a humpback whale lifted me up on a pectoral fin; the time when I watched a young crabeater seal painstakingly climb to the top of a 70-foot tall iceberg, only to slide off an ice ramp and into the sea, again and again, until I realized he was doing this purely to entertain himself.

Climate change is impacting both predators and prey in Antarctica, but we generally have less empathy for the former · Paul Nicklen

Without the full picture, what we stand to lose becomes distorted. I believe we have to learn how to honor the ice of Antarctica, as well as every distinct level of life supported by such vital and complex infrastructure in a seemingly inhospitable environment. The health of innumerable tiny organisms hidden beneath the ice has a direct impact on our existence. 

Humans are capable of great harm, but also of great empathy. Knowledge is the place to start. We need to be curious, seek to discover the mysteries of our global ecosystems, to respect each other and the animals we share this planet with, and then be willing to act accordingly.

The colors and textures of ice in Antarctica are endless · Paul Nicklen
Warming temperatures are contributing to annual ice loss on a devastating scale · Paul Nicklen
Antarctica regulates the global climate, so no matter how far away we live, we are completely interconnected · Paul Nicklen
Less than 1% of the Antarctic landmass is ice-free · Paul Nicklen
If we take the right action now, there is still time for the Antarctic ecosystem to regenerate · Paul Nicklen

This year, after nine years of inaction, the decision to create a critical network of three vast protected areas in Antarctica is still hanging in the balance. We have acted boldly, and with courage, before—protecting 1.5 million square kilometres in the Ross Sea in Antarctica in 2016. Now, as melting ice and industrial fishing threaten to destabilize an entire ecosystem, the stakes are even higher. We must not hesitate to act again. The health of the global ocean and the stability of our planet’s climate are intimately linked to Antarctica, and therefore, so are we.

Today, right at this very moment, millions of penguins line the shores and fill the seas around the Antarctic Peninsula. Standing on the hillside and looking down on this beautiful abundance leaves one breathless. Through my images and stories, I want to share the hope that I have in all of us to keep places like Antarctica protected, and to recognize that our collective actions today will decide the future of this planet.

Adult king penguins and their chicks line the shores · Paul Nicklen
The only way to achieve change is together. I hope you will add your name to the petition and join me in calling on world leaders to protect Antarctica.

Paul Nicklen

Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

Co-founder of SeaLegacy and Only One, Paul Nicklen is a Canadian-born photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist specializing in polar ecosystems. He has documented the beauty and the plight of our planet for over 30 years, creating an emotional connection with wild subjects in extreme conditions. For 20 years, Paul has been an assignment photographer for National Geographic.

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