Authored by Nichola Clark
A few days into our journey, the captain announced we were 260 miles from the Falklands and Antarctica was another 300+ miles ahead of us. Many people may think that means we are in the middle of nowhere. My first thought, however, was “We’re in the high seas!!” This is the area of the ocean I’ve dedicated my career to protecting. The high seas are legally defined as ocean areas that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any country—generally 200 nautical miles from shore.
There is a myth that the high seas are barren wastelands, a watery desert. We know now that they are in fact teeming with life and biodiversity. My Homeward Bound cohort has seen beautiful evidence of this biodiversity on our journey to and from Antarctica. Sea birds such as albatross and petrels have escorted our ship throughout the voyage, effortlessly gliding over the waves and entertaining us with a sort of aerial ballet. Whales too occasionally swim alongside, sometimes even close enough that you can hear them take a breath. Seabirds and whales are the high seas biodiversity most visible to us from the ship, but an untold treasure of life lies beneath the waves.
Photo Credit: Sophie Adams
The high seas are vast—making up two-thirds of the ocean and covering nearly half of the surface of the planet. And they are relatively unprotected. But there’s an opportunity to change that! In June of this year, the United Nations formally adopted a new treaty to advance the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the high seas, and this new treaty provides a legal pathway to protect important ocean areas, such as those places that are particularly important breeding or feeding grounds of the Humpback whales that we’ve been so fortunate to see on this trip. Many of these highly migratory species spend a significant portion of their lives on the high seas and it is therefore important to protect them in that portion of their journey.
The high seas treaty will enter into force when 60 countries formally ratify it and only then could it be operationalized to create positive change for the ocean. The next phase of the high seas treaty will be one of great uncertainty and complexity. Many operational details, such as the composition of the scientific advisory body, are still to be determined; a number of provisions could be subject to differing legal interpretations; and a broad group of stakeholders will need to be identified and consulted.
Photo Credit: Sophie Adams
Homeward Bound aims to build capacity of its participants to lead in these sorts of emergent moments, to effectively navigate through uncertainty and complexity: forging a path forward in the face of opposing views, seeking out and supporting the inclusion of diverse perspectives and ideas, and having a strategic plan to advance core issues while maintaining the flexibility to change the strategic plan swiftly when circumstances change.
Securing the high seas treaty’s entry into force will require vigilance, dedication, and emergent leadership. But like the albatross soaring alongside our ship, we will find and ride the waves of opportunity; like the icebergs we will apply pressure from above and below; and like the penguins, we will work diligently to secure a safe habitat, for the benefit of current and future generations.