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Vail: Photog talks about a sea worth saving

Caramie Schnell
cschnell@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/John WellerA lone Adelie penguin stands on a floating piece of jigsaw ice in the Ross Sea in Antarctica.
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VAIL, Colorado – Factory farming. Global warming. Chemicals in our food. Water shortages. Skyrocketing cancer rates. Obesity. Hunger.

And there’s easily another thousand issues that merit your attention and concern right now.

“We’re bombarded with information and it’s really easy to turn off,” said photographer-turned-marine conservationist John Weller. “I get 10 e-mails a day that I don’t even look at because I know it’s going to present me with an issue I should be aware of and engaged in.”



One thing is clear to Weller, people are over-saturated and it’s hard to get them to listen about one more problem in the world – even if it portends massive human suffering within a few generations. That’s where his stunning photographs of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, a place few people have ventured, come in.

In one, a lone Adelie penguin stands on a jigsaw puzzle piece of ice. In another, a seal rockets under the water, leaving a trail of white frothy bubbles in the deep blue water that opens around it.



“What I found is once people see these photos, they slow down a bit and I can say, ‘Here’s why I went down there,'” Weller said. “It gives people a way to enter the story emotionally.”

People stop and stare and there’s his opening. In just a few minutes, he can tell you a story about a pristine place at the bottom of the world that’s climate is harsh beyond imagination but yet is filled with life.

And while the story about this place is scary, that’s not stopping Weller from talking or people from listening – that’s because it’s a story that has to be told.



The Ross Sea is recognized by many scientists as the most pristine open-ocean ecosystem left on earth. To say it another way, the Ross Sea is the last ocean. And it’s being threatened. A fishery focused on Antarctic toothfish, marketed to consumers as Chilean seabass, moved into the area and threatens to destabilize the area, Weller said.

In 2004, a scientific paper asserting as much ended up in Weller’s hands. He hasn’t stopped thinking about it since.

“The implications of that kept me up nights, that we were down to this last pocket of water at the bottom of the world,” Weller said.

But what does that mean?

“By scientists best estimates, we’ve eaten as much as 90 percent of the world’s top predatory fish. You can imagine what kind of damage that does to a marine ecostystem. Worldwide, we’re seeing the effects of that extraction. Not only are the top fish we eat – tuna, swordfish, etc. – highly endangered, their disappearance has affected ecosystems around the world.”

And once an ecosystem crashes, there comes a tipping point where it can’t ever recover, even if you leave it alone, Weller said.

“That’s what happened to the cod industry in the East. The ecosystem closed around cod’s niche, which has kept the cod from coming back, even though they haven’t been fishing for cod for a decade. It’s not coming back.”

Weller and many others believe humankind is in danger.

“The 700 million people whose main source of protein is fish are already suffering massively from those declines,” he said. “There’s a true human consequence to this and we need to protect what’s left.”

One thing is for sure, we can’t continue on the same path, Weller said.

“Scientists are predicting, and this is hard to say because it sounds outlandish, but they’re predicting the end of fish. Ninety percent of the world’s fisheries have been reduced to 10 percent of original capacity,” he said.

The main solution being proposed by top scientists and policy makers in the UN and elsewhere are a network of marine-protected areas placed strategically around the globe. This network would safeguard what’s left and in doing so, foster recovery of the big species, sharks and other fish that are critical pieces of the puzzle, Weller said.

“It’s a tangible solution and there are a variety of success stories, from Indonesia to the Shetland Islands in Antarctica,” he said.

He decided to use his skills as a photographer to promote conservation there, as a way to get the story to the people who needed to hear it. He reached out the scientists and started doing his own research.

Armed with a scientific advisory board, Weller began recruiting other partners for the project, including Quark Expeditions. There’s basically only one route to Antarctica for non-scientists and that’s through Quark. In the five years since, Weller has been to the area four times. Quark donated the equivalent of $130,000 to the project.

And now, with photos in hand, one documentary film done and another on the way, Weller is ready to tell the story. He’s giving two presentations at Golden Peak in Vail at 3 p.m., Firday and Saturday.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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