What comes to mind when you think about Antarctica? For many people, Antarctica seems like a frozen, snowy desert – a place that’s out of sight and out of mind, cold, windy and desolate – but the reality could not be further from the truth. 

Because surrounding Antarctica, the Southern Ocean is home to some of the most important ecosystems on Earth. It plays a key role in feeding ocean currents that feed the world, is home to an amazing multitude of marine species from seabirds to the great whales, invertebrate species that we are still discovering, and the mighty (though tiny) krill. It is also a bulwark in our fight against climate change. The great and vibrant Southern Ocean has a profound effect on Earth’s climate and ocean systems. 

Tragically, while Antarctica and its surrounding waters may be far from most human activities, they are under threat from climate change, overfishing, illegal fishing, invasive species, tourism, pollution and the creeping sea of plastic that is colonising our global ocean. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Lewis Pugh, Antarctic

It is time for us to come together to safeguard Antarctica for all of humankind – and the plant and animal species that depend on it. Antarctica 2020 is a movement to protect large areas of the great Southern Ocean by securing the designation of at least three very large marine protected areas (MPAs) covering nearly seven million km2 (roughly the size of Australia) by 2020. Working with partners around the world, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, many governments and wonderful ocean leaders like José María Figueres, Lewis Pugh (the human polar bear) and Slava Fetisov, former Russian ice hockey champion, momentum is building around our 2020 goal. Which is fitting as 2020 is not only the 200-year anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica, but also the deadline by which the global community has committed to protect at least ten per cent of the ocean globally. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Lewis Pugh, Antarctic

Breakthrough progress has already been made. In October 2016, the 24 countries and European Union that together make up the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the international body that governs these waters, agreed by consensus to designate the world’s largest MPA in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. It was a huge conservation win for the world’s Ocean and an important first step towards fulfilling the CCAMLR members’ commitment to create a broader Southern Ocean protected area network. 

It is time for us to come together to safeguard Antarctica for all of humankind – and the plant and animal species that depend on it. 

We still have a long way to go on the path toward Antarctic protection and time is of the essence. We now look to these same CCAMLR countries to build on the momentum of the Ross Sea by designating fully protected MPAs in the Weddell Sea, in the waters off East Antarctica and in the Antarctic Peninsula. Right now, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise is in the Weddell Sea, undertaking critical research, exploring areas for the very first time, so that all of us can see the stunning array of marine life that is thriving in these frigid waters. You can take a look at what they are doing here.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Lewis Pugh, Antarctic

With these three potential marine reserves on the table and a new geopolitical reality requiring renewed efforts to reach consensus, we need a re-energized and fresh, high-level diplomatic effort. Strong leadership and collaboration across all sectors – business, government, the public, NGOs, science and academia – is critical to gaining support to protect these three areas in the Southern Ocean by 2020. This is precisely what the Ocean Unite Network was set up to do.

Ocean Unite is collaborating with The Pew Charitable Trusts to launch a new initiative that kicks off on February 5th in Washington D.C. with some of the world’s most influential ocean advocates, including José María Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission and co-founder with Sir Richard Branson of Ocean Unite, Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the ocean and extreme swimmer, and Slava Fetisov, acting member of the Russian Duma, Olympic gold medallist and Stanley Cup champion hockey player. To kick off the Antarctica 2020 initiative, they will gather in Washington, D.C., to discuss the continued collaboration needed to secure their vision for a network of strongly protected MPAs in this remarkable area of the globe, then meet with former US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to celebrate securing the protection of the Ross Sea. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Lewis Pugh, Antarctic

Join the #Antarctica2020 movement by tuning into the event and signing Pew’s petition to call on world leaders to fully protect the marine waters of East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Weddell Sea. 

You can watch this event live and submit your questions to our panel on February 5th through this link or through the live stream featured at the end of this article.

At the height of the cold war, countries like Russia and the US came together and created the Antarctic Treaty System, declaring Antarctica a place of peace and science. Now, nearly 60 years later, it is time to take this same spirit into the rich and vibrant waters of this majestic ocean. Together countries can put aside their differences to protect this most wonderful and pristine part of our planet! 

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.