A Journey to the Last Great Wilderness on Earth

A Pew staffer shares her first trip to Antarctica—and her first visit to the high seas she works to protect

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A Journey to the Last Great Wilderness on Earth
A snowy, rocky landscape lies beyond icy ocean waters with partly cloudy skies overhead.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Aboard the survey ship Island Sky in the Southern Ocean—On Nov. 12, 2023, I stepped onto a ship in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, with 97 other women and non-binary people bound for Antarctica on an expedition that is the capstone of a year-long leadership training program called Homeward Bound. We had come here from 18 countries with a wide range of expertise—quantum physicists and mathematicians, marine biologists and medical doctors—joined by our common background in the fields of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). Some have shifted from science research to science communication; others, like me, are using their science backgrounds to influence policy.

We share an objective on this voyage: to build leadership skills tailored toward making a positive difference for a planet in crisis and to bear witness to Antarctica, one of the last great wildernesses on Earth. The Antarctic continent is one of the places most greatly affected by climate change, which in turn will greatly affect how the rest of the planet will change. For example, the ice sheets melting on the continent will result in sea level rise around the world. The warming water could alter currents throughout the entire ocean. What happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica.

We took an indirect route to get there, stopping along the way at some incredible and remote places. Our first stop was the Falkland Islands, also known as the Malvinas Islands, where good weather allowed us to make several shore landings and explore the penguin and albatross colonies that make their homes there.

I found myself overwhelmed by the size of these colonies (with hundreds and sometimes even thousands of mating pairs) and the incredible privilege of observing these animals in their natural habitat. I especially enjoyed watching individual interactions—a Gentoo penguin dutifully trudging beyond the colony to collect grass to enhance its partner’s nest, back and forth, back and forth, dodging others that coveted that extra grass. On another landing we saw king penguins patiently enduring harassment from their hungry teenage chicks, some of which were larger than their parents.

South Georgia was our intended next stop, and many of the scientists in our cohort were just as excited about seeing this storied island as they were the Antarctic peninsula. Unfortunately, much of South Georgia’s wildlife has been hit hard by the avian flu, and though our ship has very strict biosecurity protocols, our captain decided landing there would pose too high a risk to bird populations. When he announced this decision, our group—to his surprise—broke out in applause: We were of course disappointed, but we’re also scientists, and every one of us would have made the same call: to do what’s best for biodiversity.

The captain announced that the Falklands were 260 nautical miles behind us, and the Antarctic peninsula was 300-plus miles ahead. “I’m in the high seas!” I thought to myself. This is my first time sailing on the high seas—the space that Pew and our partners in the High Seas Alliance have been working for years to protect. And conserving the high seas is no small feat: Although they make up two-thirds of the ocean, the high seas lie 200 nautical miles from shore and tend to be as far from people’s minds as they are hard to reach.

A woman wearing a black beanie, turquoise parka and sunglasses smiles in a selfie. Behind her are ocean waters and white, glaciated terrain in the background.
During the first week of her expedition, Pew senior officer Nichola Clark marveled at biodiversity and landscapes she had never seen before—including the waters she seeks to protect, the high seas.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

But protecting these areas beyond national jurisdiction is indeed critical. Worldwide, the high seas contain immense biodiversity—a catalogue of species well beyond the whales, sharks, dolphins and turtles that often come first to people’s minds. These regions are also home to teeming seamounts, hydrothermal vents that support thriving communities of life that have found a way to survive in the ocean’s coldest depths, and circumpolar currents—like the one flowing north from the Southern Ocean—that ferry nutrients literally around the world.

And I am now seeing some of this first hand. We’re in open waters hundreds of miles from any shore—and we’re not alone. Dozens of different types of seabirds glide alongside our ship, with albatrosses and petrels effortlessly riding 16-foot waves. Regular calls over the PA announce that whales and dolphins have been spotted (followed by a mad dash where everyone grabs binoculars and cameras to try to get a better look). These are just the organisms most visible to us from the bow of the ship.

Under the current system of international governance of the high seas, there are few safeguards to protect these incredible ecosystems. But that can change soon: A new high seas treaty, adopted by the United Nations in June 2023, presents an opportunity to protect these waters. The treaty will enter into force only after 60 countries formally agree to be legally bound by it. Once it is operational, it can be used to establish marine protected areas that conserve important ecosystems and habitats, and to require environmental impact assessments for new activities that could cause significant harm. Rapidly declining biodiversity and our rapidly changing planet must be met with swift, urgent action.

We’re a little over one-third of the way through our journey, and our captain just announced that winds are 40-60 knots and the wave swell is over 18 feet. We are 60 miles from Antarctica—the increasing numbers of cape petrel gliding above the waves signal we’re slowly nearing land—and should arrive sometime tomorrow morning. The gale conditions we’re enduring now should calm as we get closer to the peninsula, but my excitement will only grow.  Antarctica, and even more eye-opening experiences, await.

Nichola Clark works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ ocean governance project.

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Protect the High Seas
World leaders have adopted an historic treaty to protect the high seas
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