Photography for a Cause

Last October I saw an article by Brian Clark Howard on that warmed my heart, even as it discussed one of the coldest places on the planet:

A remote and largely pristine stretch of ocean off Antarctica received international protection on Friday, becoming the world’s largest marine reserve as a broad coalition of countries came together to protect 598,000 square miles of water.…

South of New Zealand and deep in the Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean, the 1.9-million-square-mile Ross Sea is sometimes called the “Last Ocean” because it is largely untouched by humans. Its nutrient-rich waters are the most productive in the Antarctic, leading to huge plankton and krill blooms that support vast numbers of fish, seals, penguins, and whales.

Some 16,000 species are thought to call the Ross Sea home, many of them uniquely adapted to the cold environment. A 2011 study in the journal Biological Conservation called the Ross Sea “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” citing intact communities of emperor and Adelie penguins, crabeater seals, orcas, and minke whales.

The sea’s remoteness has meant it has largely escaped the heavy fishing and shipping pressure that has impacted so much of the world’s ocean, although rising prices for seafood and the low cost of fuel have made some fishermen eye the waters as potential new grounds in recent years. Some fishing already occurred there for Antarctic toothfish, a predatory fish that is sold as the highly prized Chilean sea bass.

But fishing will no longer be allowed in 432,000 square miles of the new reserve (some toothfish fishing is expected to proceed in a specially designated zone in the remainder of the protected area). The new protection will go into force on December 1, 2017.

The newly protected area “shows that the world can successfully cooperate on global environmental issues,” says Enric Sala, a marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who leads the Pristine Seas project.

“The Ross Sea is probably the largest ocean wilderness left on our planet,” he says. “It is the Serengeti of Antarctica, a wild place full of wildlife such as emperor penguins, leopard seals, minke whales, and killer whales. It’s one of these rare places where humans are only visitors and large animals rule.”

With this environmental success story as background, I went to the man who was the primary visual architect of Ross Sea conservation, John Weller, to learn more.

Thanks to temperatures, water is pictured in layers
Anchor Ice
Super-cooled saltwater mixes with meltwater from the ice shelf, and the combination is less salty and more buoyant. Thus, instead of sinking, as cold brine does, the super-cooled shelfwater rises from under the ice shelves in plumes, pooling under the sea ice and creating a super-cooled layer that can measure up to 100 feet thick. Where this mass of water touches the seafloor, fields of delicate stalagmites grow on the rocks, providing hiding places for all manner of benthic creatures and even fish.

Stephen Frink: I became aware of the Ross Sea in a conversation with Sylvia Earle, Ph.D., coincident with her declaration of the region as one of her “Hope Spots.” She suggested I look at your photography to gain greater insight into the region. I was blown away by the artistry and passion evident in your photos but also by the physical challenges you underwent to bring home such meaningful images from such a difficult environment. Of course, that prompted a cover story in the Winter 2013 issue of Alert Diver. Tell me a little bit about yourself and the forks in the road that led you to the Ross Sea.

John Weller: First off, thank you, Stephen. That means a lot. The Ross Sea conservation story has been a central part of my being, consuming much of my professional life over the past 15 years. It has also had a tremendous impact on my personal life as it introduced me to my wife, Cassandra, and led to our daughter. Cassie did her master’s degree on toothfish, and I had read one of her papers. She’s spent more time on boats in Antarctica than I have — and as a researcher. She is one of my heroes. Her doctoral dissertation relates to the Ross Sea, so as you can imagine we’ve had lively conversations about all things Antarctica over the years. But for me, photography was the hook that brought me there.

As a kid growing up in Boulder, Colo., I was obsessive about photography. My parents gave me my first camera, a 110-film point-and-shoot, when I was 4, and by the time I was 8 I’d graduated to my mom’s Nikon FM2 with a 300mm telephoto lens. Sitting for hours watching birds and photographing wildlife became a lifelong passion. I went to college to study environmental economics, but I remained torn about my life’s direction. My sister gave me sage advice at the height of my angst. She said I should be a poet. Any poetry I was capable of came through a camera, so I accepted her challenge. I called a photographer I had known since childhood, Perry Conway. He said if this was the real deal I should be prepared to

  1. Go into debt
  2. Live at home because “you won’t be making any money at the start”
  3. Go to Yosemite, and train under Bill Neill
The cracks in the pack ice look orange
Pack Ice
The Inuit peoples of northern Alaska have 97 words to describe sea ice. We were cutting through a painting. Sea ice forms every year as temperatures drop to –40°F, freezing into an unbroken sheet of ice up to 10 feet thick, effectively doubling the size of the continent. In between the freeze and the melt, this desert of drifting ice forms the basis for one of the largest, richest and most dynamic ecosystems on Earth.

SF: I know the photography of William Neill. He won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography from the Sierra Club in 1995 and is one of the great American landscape photographers. Is it that easy to go train with him?

JW: Well, that’s where Perry came in — he introduced me to Bill. Then it was easy because Bill is so warm and welcoming as well as being a truly great artist. I stayed for two years; I didn’t just train under him, his family became my family. I was shooting all color then — Kodachrome with long lenses — but as you’d expect in Yosemite, I began working with medium- and large-format film as well. As much as I loved that mountain wilderness, I was drawn ever closer to the ocean. Soon all my spare time was spent at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, where I would shoot and write and think about how to intimately capture the seascape.

By 2000 I was back in Boulder living with my parents, but I had a critical mass of significant images to justify an art exhibit. A collector purchased $70,000 worth of my prints from my show, and all of a sudden I had the resources to take it to the next level. I didn’t blow the money; I continued living at home and traipsed all over the West looking for my next visual inspiration. I found it in the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Every month for three and a half years I’d walk deep into the dunes to camp and shoot, for a week at a time usually. It was transformative. This was wilderness in which I never saw another person.

Learning to appreciate that ecosystem’s intricate connectivity filled me with joy. I was beginning to understand conservation too, because a developer bought the adjacent land with intentions to drill into the crucial underlying aquifer and pump the water to Denver. I watched in amazement as a coalition of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the National Park Service and even local ranchers aligned together with the goal of keeping the water underground. They actually stopped the development and saved the dunes, demonstrating that conservation is not just about protecting animals, it is about protecting people. I wrote and published a photo book on the Great Sand Dunes — my first book of poetry, if you will. But I wanted my photography to be on the front line of a very meaningful conservation story. I wanted to be a driver, not just a reporter. 

A close-up photo of a dark, huge ocean wave
Southern Ocean Wave
In a pocket between towering 30-foot swells, the icebreaker rolled 35 degrees left then right, sending an angry curtain of salt-white spray 50 feet into the air. I lasted only 10 minutes photographing on a low deck, strapped to the handrail with a climbing harness. It was terrifying, yet the raw power of the waves and spray sent my heart racing as I rode the great green and yellow chariot south from New Zealand toward the southernmost body of water in the world.

SF: That’s still a long way from Antarctica and your Last Ocean project, and I haven’t yet discerned anything that really prepared you for the kind of photography you did there.

JW: The Ross Sea story found me in the fall of 2004 during a conversation with a high-school friend, Heidi Geisz, who worked at Palmer Station, Antarctica, on a penguin research team. She gave me a newly published paper by Antarctic ecologist David Ainley titled “Acquiring a ‘Base Datum of Normality’ for a Marine Ecosystem: The Ross Sea, Antarctica.” In this paper, Ainley lays out the story of the Ross Sea, presenting evidence that it is the last large intact marine ecosystem on Earth. A fast-expanding fishery in the Ross Sea meant that this place would soon be gone. I didn’t know much about the ocean at that point, and the thought that there was one last undamaged place was inconceivable. It kept me up at night. I wrote to Ainley and requested a meeting. Two weeks later I met him at his home in California. We enlisted each other to tell this story and have worked together ever since.

The strategy that I initially imagined was to create a tidal wave of media based on the most beautiful art I could muster, build a global community and convince legislators to enact protections. But really I wanted to change global culture. How I would attempt that, I had no idea.

A seal and its pup float around the ice. The ice and water look blue
Weddell Seal and Pup
The southernmost breeding mammals in the world, Weddell seals live in McMurdo Sound all year long. But to pull this off they must at times dive half a mile deep, enduring the pressure of a car crusher, and stay submerged for an hour and a half. They must also eat their way through the ice to keep their dive holes open through the winter.

I started by concentrating on the photography. The story, obviously, was largely underwater, so I had to learn underwater photography, and I had never dived. Through another friend I approached the legendary Bill Curtsinger. He set me on the path, but it would take four years and more than 400 photography dives (mostly in Bonaire, but also in northern Minnesota in the winter for drysuit training) before I finally earned the opportunity to dive under the ice.

In 2006 I cold-called Francesco Contini of Quark Expeditions, which was sending an icebreaker to the Ross Sea. By the end of the week he had offered full support, enabling me and my new partner, filmmaker Peter Young, to visit the Ross Sea for two months that season. This finally brought me to the edge of the ice.

I went back to Antarctica once more with Quark the following year. The year after that (the 2008-2009 season), I finally got down there to dive through the National Science Foundation. After that, I had all the imagery I needed to play my role in what followed.

Weird little orange spiny creature
Epimeriid Amphipod
Some benthic species adapt to the cold water by growing into giants, and sea spiders the size of dinner plates walked with bizarre strides, sometimes taking freeloading passengers along for the ride on their lobster-red legs. My favorite was a little armored tank, the epimeriid amphipod, which walked the endless maze of anchor ice.

SF: I look at your photography and admire not only your vision but also the environmental adversity you must have had to overcome to work there. Is it as hard as it looks?

JW: Again, thank you. But the photography is surprisingly easy, except for the effect the cold water had on battery life — I needed lithium batteries for my strobes. Also, remember I was working with 2006 technology. The high ISO capabilities of today’s cameras would have been welcome, but the best at the time was my Canon 1Ds Mark II (in a Seacam housing with Inon Z-240 strobes). It was physically cold, but it was so stunningly beautiful I often didn’t notice the cold until my hands started aching and straining against the stiff drysuit gloves. Doug Allan of the BBC gave me a pair of his three-finger wet mittens, which gave my hands more freedom, and that was transformational for my work.

Penguin chick looks up to mama penguin
Emperor Penguin and Chick
Lines of adult emperors slid on their bellies to and from their colony, 6 miles across the sea ice toward the black cliffs. Groups of juvenile birds, still dressed in their downy suits, also traversed the ice to the water’s edge. Though they still had more than a month before they could safely take their first plunge, the young birds were already looking out to sea. Parents and chicks know each other’s unique voices and reunite by calling back and forth when the adults return with food. As we skirted around the base of the berg, the concert of several thousand voices reflected off the wall of ice behind us, so we sat and listened in stereo.

The visibility was perhaps the best on the planet. Water clarity was measured in excess of 1,000 feet because there is no phytoplankton and no current. Buoyancy was initially a challenge because the water is so clear there aren’t any visual referents floating in the water column.

SF: I’m not so naive as to believe that beautiful images are enough to effect change. There had to be political consensus as well. How did that happen?

JW: Once I had assembled the imagery I started to publish articles and, eventually, a coffee-table book, The Last Ocean. All this time I was doing talks and presentations — first to family and friends, then to their friends, then to donors and as a guest speaker. I started a website, and I helped build the Last Ocean Charitable Trust, which Young founded in New Zealand. We were finding allies, such as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Alliance (ASOC), building a community and developing a voice. At the time, one big issue was that there was no consolidated paper that fleshed out the state of the Ross Sea and could be used as a base for making a Ross Sea marine protected area (MPA) proposal. Our solution was to organize and fund a symposium at the 2009 International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) with top Ross Sea scientists from different disciplines. Ainley incorporated the work of all into a massive 100-page bioregionalization paper used as the basis in the eventual development of the Ross Sea MPA proposal, and it is still the definitive paper on the Ross Sea ecosystem. I am a coauthor and am very proud of this contribution.

Throughout this project I have continued fundraising, both for my own work and as contributions to other aspects of the process. In all I have raised more than $1 million and received incredible support from individuals and organizations, including the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation, Dan Cohen, the Ocean Foundation and most recently the Safina Center. New NGOs were formed and joined the fight. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA) got celebrities involved, including Leonardo DiCaprio, and collected more than a million signatures on a petition to protect the Southern Ocean. The Pew Charitable Trusts applied its formidable strength to the issue and used the work in other creative ways, including distributing copies of my book directly to Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) delegates and to help inform and inspire U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who became the linchpin of the whole process at the end.

SF: I’m hearing that the images might have been a touchstone, but it took a movement with the engagement of many, including Secretary Kerry.

JW: That’s absolutely true. Ainley really started the ball rolling; together we gave it an initial big push, and then we were able to help keep it rolling as we worked with more and more partners — the images were used all over the world. The establishment of the Ross Sea MPA involved thousands of dedicated people, fighting battles in boardrooms and scientific journals and in the media. It has been a very long, bumpy ride. I will say this: I am proud. When Ainley and I started working on this, one of the first meetings we had was with Polly Penhale at the National Science Foundation. She told us, and I can nearly quote: “An MPA will likely never happen, but if it does, it will take a decade.” That was in 2005, so she was wrong. It took 11 years. I am mostly proud because I didn’t let go, and I left it all on the field, as they say. There were too many dead ends to count. I chased ideas until they died, and then rebooted and changed direction.

I’ll also say this: The fight is not over, even for the Ross Sea. The MPA is far from perfect: It leaves the controversial toothfish fishery largely untouched and leaves important toothfish habitat outside the boundary of the MPA. But it was an incredible, improbable, almost inconceivable step forward. It was a peace treaty. Since the beginning I have believed that a Ross Sea MPA would be a keystone in the fight to redefine our relationship with the ocean.

Some time ago Sylvia Earle quipped, “If we can’t protect the Ross Sea, what can we protect?” But I like to think of it the other way around: If we can manage to protect the Ross Sea, to assemble a consensus of two-dozen nations in defense of the last pristine place, what can’t we do? I believe that the floodgates have finally opened, and the rest of my life will be devoted to increasing the flow. I had been working on the Ross Sea issue for 10 years before I really understood what was at stake. The birth of my daughter pulled everything into focus for me. I knew what I was fighting for literally from the moment she was born.

Penguin at the base of an ice breaker
Tiananmen Square in the Southern Ocean: Emperor Penguin and Icebreaker
On Oct. 28, 2016, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources declared the world’s first large-scale international marine protected area (MPA) in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. It is the world’s largest MPA, and it protects the last large intact marine ecosystem on Earth. The final deal was struck, and when it was announced the room erupted. People were standing, clapping, cheering, crying. Nations were literally hugging other nations. This was not just a massive win for Antarctica. It was not just a massive win for the conservation of our global oceans, though it was both. This was also a peace treaty. If we all work together, I believe it is a blueprint for the future of our oceans.
A film crew is under a sheet of ice filming the underwater world
BBC Filming Under the Ice
Beneath the seal colony the ocean floor was a mosaic. Nemertean worms, more than 6 feet long, snaked through a carpet of lurid sea stars. Urchins tiptoed on their many spines. Every creature was either eating or hunting, but it was all happening in slow motion. I joined a team of BBC filmmakers who had deployed time-lapse cameras to reveal the concerted industry of the seafloor. Seen at high speed, sea stars stormed up the slope en masse as an advancing army of singular purpose. The target of the attack was an unlucky Weddell seal pup, which had died under the ice and sunk to the bottom on the shallow underwater shelf.
A man in a red coat walks through a giant group of penguins
David Ainley
David Ainley, Ph.D., more or less started the drive for a Ross Sea marine protected area. A consummate observational scientist, he has studied Adélie penguins for more than 40 years. He watches intently, recognizing subtle patterns, thoroughly researching every relevant angle and slowly assembling the puzzle pieces to see more clearly into the world around him. In the late 1990s, nations were readying their ships in preparation to expand industrial fishing even farther into Antarctic waters. Ainley could see the danger, and in 2004 he wrote the paper that inspired my journey.

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© Alert Diver — Q1 2017