Icy waters teeming with penguins and pods of killer whales, swirling clouds of krill and majestic humpback whales – the oceans surrounding Antarctica are some of the most pristine and productive in the world. It is a powerhouse of the world's climate. This is where waters from all the northerly oceans meet and mix and sink, and where deep currents and winds drive the oceanic conveyor belt. Temperature changes in Antarctica have not been uniform; some regions have experienced warming while elsewhere there has been little change—even cooling. On the Antarctic Peninsula, part of West Antarctica, change has been extraordinarily rapid, with temperatures rising over 3°C in the second half of the 20th century.

Its incredible biodiversity is threatened by climate change, as well as increased fishing and tourism. Geopolitical pressures and new interests in Antarctic natural resources are escalating. As global fisheries become depleted, there is growing interest to expand fishing efforts throughout the region.

What we're doing

The eye of a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), Wilhelmina Bay in Antarctic Peninsula
© Ari Friedlaender

Protecting Antarctic giants

Whale distribution and their critical feeding areas are poorly understood. As climate change and krill fishing increase in the Antarctic, the pressure to learn more about these majestic animals becomes more urgent. New technologies are helping scientists better understand and map the most important areas where whales feed, so we can protect them before it’s too late.

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WildCrowd app
© WWF-Australia

Wildcrowd app

To help protect these precious whales and other iconic wildlife, WWF has partnered with Apple to create Wildcrowd – a new mobile and web app to collect wildlife sightings. Naturalists and field guides working in the polar tourism industry, and tourists themselves, will be able to record sightings of species including whales, penguins, seals and seabirds. This will help scientists better understand specific locations for species, the interaction between predators and prey, and how a changing climate is impacting critical feeding habitats.

Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) surfacing in front of the WWF research team, Gulf of Corcovado
© WWF / Francisco Viddi

Blue whale satellite tagging

WWF-Australia is working with WWF-Chile, with the support of Blackmores, to better understand where Chilean blue whales migrate to in the eastern Pacific Ocean. We are using satellite tracking to locate critical feeding and breeding habitat, and to provide evidence for the establishment of new marine protected areas.

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A southern right whale and calf off New Zealand coast
A southern right whale and calf off New Zealand coast © Peter Chadwick / WWF

Studying southern right whales

Although southern right whale populations are recovering from whaling, very little information on their breeding and feeding habitat is understood. In partnership with Murdoch University, we are assessing right whale health using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This will help us to better understand the impacts of annual migration between breeding and feeding areas.

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Humpback Whale in Charlottes Bay
Humpback Whale in Charlottes Bay © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

Protecting the Southern ocean

Protecting species and their critical habitats depends on a range of activities. To bring science into action, our ocean policy work also involves discussions and representations in the offices of government agencies and international conference halls. While it may not be glamorous, this high-level work is critical. Without the legal framework to support our conservation efforts, we simply won't succeed.

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© KC Bierlich / Duke University Marine Robotics & Remote Sensing Lab - Imagery collected under research permits: ACA #2015-011= #2016-024 & #2017-034; NMFS #14809; US NSF #1440435 & 1643877.

Soaring to new heights

Every year, humpback whales travel over 8,500 kilometres down the coast of South America to feed in the krill abundant waters of Antarctica. Working with researchers from Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab, WWF is using drones to better understand the health of the population and the risks they face under a changing climate.

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Why it matters

WWF’s founder Sir Peter Scott famously said of Antarctica in 1966: “We should have the sense to leave just one place alone”. It was a visionary statement but one that is now virtually impossible.

However, WWF continues to be guided by Sir Peter Scott's sentiments for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean by increasing the network of marine protected areas, improving fisheries management, and establishing an effective climate change monitoring program. We are ever vigilant, aware that the governing frameworks for Antarctica, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), allow a single country to veto management measures.

There is much at stake. Of the world's 18 penguin species, half are found only within the Southern Ocean. It also provides critical habitat for 80% of the world's large whale species, including the humpback whale and southern right whale, which are only now recovering from being hunted to the brink of extinction, and the blue whale – Earth's largest living creature. Minke whales, sperm and killer whales complete the suite of impressive cetaceans.

WWF recognises that these new challenges require a new approach. Our Antarctic Conservation Program monitors and reports on the state of species, ecosystems and human impacts. But we do much more. We give the Antarctic oceans a voice, advocating for marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean and designing innovative conservation solutions based on sound science.

Black-browed albatross (Diomedea / Thalassarche melanophrys) with chick on nest, Falkland Islands
© naturepl.com / Andy Rouse / WWF

Did you know?

It is home to albatross, penguins and seals. 88 per cent of species in the Southern Ocean are found nowhere else in the world.

Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) diving off iceberg, Antarctica, January
© naturepl.com / Tim Laman / WWF


Global warming

Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the region. Some parts of Antarctica are experiencing significant ice retreat, including the collapse of ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula, while other areas are increasing. If our climate continues to warm and acidify the Southern ocean, scientists predict that krill populations could be devastated, undermining the entire food chain.

Increased fishing pressure and illegal fishing

As global fisheries become depleted, there is growing interest to expand fishing throughout the region. In particular, krill fishing needs to be closely monitored and controlled to ensure whales, penguins and other wildlife are protected. Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing also threatens fish stocks in some areas of the Southern Ocean and thereby the seabirds and marine mammals that depend upon them. The harmful fishing methods used by IUU fishing vessels also cause the direct deaths of countless seabirds.

Marine pollution

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been measured around Antarctica and detected in wildlife. Microplastics are emerging as a threat in the region. Increasing quantities of plastic are washing up on the Antarctic coastline and sub-Antarctic islands.

Invasive species

Many Antarctic species have evolved in isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, they have developed no means of defending themselves from the invasive species carried aboard ships. WWF catalysed and helped fund the removal of rabbits from Macquarie Island and is now helping to remove mice from the Antipodes Islands.