"And it has beguiled humankind for centuries as people have sought to understand it," he added, arguing that the waters of the Southern Ocean, home to 16,000 species, are a "living laboratory."
Kerry told the gathering at the National Geographic Society he believed the world can "work together to ensure that Antarctica remains a place devoted to peace and devoted to expanding human understanding of this fragile planet."
"This is one of the last places we could do this, and I think we owe it to ourselves to make it happen."
But conservationists argue the proposals do not go far enough to protect marine life -- notably the Antarctic toothfish, which is fished in huge quantities and served as Chilean sea bass on restaurant tables around the world.
The Ross Sea proposal, while creating a reserve to protect Adelie and emperor penguins, as well as killer whales and Weddell seals, would still allow some 3,000 tonnes of toothfish to be commercially caught each year.
"We wanted New Zealand to come up with a much stronger proposal, and they just didn't, and they dug their heels in, and basically the US had to go for New Zealand's proposal," documentary film-maker Peter Young said.