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Antarctica's Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary

Tuesday, Jan 29, 2019

Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent in the world. Covered almost entirely by an ice sheet, hiding a landscape of valleys, mountains and plains, temperatures have bone-chillingly dropped to - 89.2 degrees Celsius – the lowest ever recorded temperature on the planet. Due to the frigid conditions, thousands of glaciers extend into the sea. On the coast, great pieces of ice break away and drift as icebergs. During winter, the surrounding sea freezes for hundreds of kilometres.

During Antarctic Whale Defence Campaigns, Sea Shepherd ships have always needed to be extra vigilant for icebergs such as this massive beauty when cautiously sailing through the icy Southern Ocean. The seas are cold. Temperatures vary from around −2 to 10 degrees Celsius, and it is stormy. Cyclonic storms travel east around Antarctica, intensifying because of the temperature contrast between ice, the open ocean and the lack of landmass to act as a windbreak.

The M/Y Steve Irwin approaching an iceberg on Operation Relentless in 2013

The strongest winds ever recorded anywhere on earth have blown through the Sanctuary, which creates some of the largest waves – up to 20-30 metres with cyclonic-force winds. Antarctica is truly one of the world’s last great wildernesses. Marine wildlife is abundant in the area. Antarctic krill is the keystone species of the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean, and it is krill that attracts most whales to the region.

Most whales of the Southern Ocean migrate to warmer waters for the Antarctic winter to give birth. They return south in the Austral spring, to rich feeding grounds, and remain in the safe haven that is the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary throughout the summer. The Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary is an area of 50 million square kilometers surrounding the entire continent of Antarctica where the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has banned all types of commercial whaling. Despite a ban on all whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, Japan’s Whale Research Program continued to hunt minke whales in the Sanctuary until 2019. 

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