White continent, dark future?

Drone photographer Florian Ledoux visits Antarctica to capture life from above. But what of live below the waterline, the basis of life on the continent? What does the future hold for the white continent, and what impact might that have on the rest of the world?

Words & photographs by Florian Ledoux

The waves crashed over our boat, one after another, on what seemed like an endless journey. Our 18m sailboat, Icebird, faced walls of water up to 10m tall, methodically cutting through them. I felt like a cork in a washing machine. I was seasick and the only thing I could try to do was keep watch or sleep. I was stuck in a strange rhythm, living with the ebb and flow of the waves, far from land and in one of the roughest oceans on Earth.

But this is what it takes to reach Antarctica. I wondered more than one why I had ventured into the Drake Passage, cursing my obsession with Antarctica as my stomach churned, my skin aching from the cold. After four days clinging on to various appendages of the yacht, I saw the peninsula in the distance. The barren landscape, with its jagged mountains caked with dense, blue-hued ice, made me forget the last few miserable days at sea. I had never seen an environment that looked so untouched and never-ending – I was mesmerised.

The western Antarctic Peninsula possesses some of the most biologically vibrant areas of the Southern Ocean. Throughout our journey, sailing from fjords to glaciers, I tried to see which species were thriving, though there’s more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Once our stomachs settled and we’d got some unbroken sleep, we cruised into Paradise Bay in search of whales. It was a quiet evening, clouds hanging low and reflecting in the still waters.

Suddenly, a blow in the distance interrupted the peace. We navigated towards it and for a humpback whale on the surface, mouth agape and feeding on krill, a vital life source for wildlife in Antarctica. I was blown away by the views from my aerial equipment and marvelled at the size, grace and capacity of this extraordinary creature. But my awe was mingled with a sense of uneasiness. 

Krill may seem like insignificant creatures, but Antarctic krill are now known to play a huge role supporting marine life. Studies show that a combination of global heating and industrial-scale fishing for food, bait and aquaculture has sent populations into decline in Antarctic waters, which will have a devastating impact on the whales, seals and penguins that feed on them. Recent studies have also found that Antarctic krill play a vital role in carbon capture, removing up to 12 billion tonnes of carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere each year. Antarctic krill are among the largest of the 85 known species of krill and can live for up to 10 years. They live in the colder areas of the ocean, approximately 100 metres below the surface, only rising up to shallower waters in order to search for plankton. 

The ocean carbon sink is where CO2 is removed from the atmosphere during photosynthesis by phytoplankton and sequestered to the deep ocean as organic material sinks to the seafloor. The Southern Ocean is one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, so resident krill can have great influence on atmospheric carbon levels and therefore the global climate. After returning from Antarctica, I spoke with Dr Emma Cavan, a research associate at Imperial College London focusing on ecosystem modelling who published a paper entitled ‘The importance of Antarctic krill in biogeochemical cycles.’

​”There is some evidence they have retreated southwards and that salps (gelatinous animals) are replacing them,” explained Dr Cavan. “As krill are really important food for many animals in Antarctica this could have negative impacts on predators, such as whales, seals and penguins if they can’t find enough krill or feed off an alternative food source. Krill are fished, but only a very small percentage of the population is fished, so likely the bigger threat to krill is still climate change. This includes warming seas, melting ice and changes to habitats.”

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Issue Eleven
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This feature appears in ISSUE 11: The hunt of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Eleven
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