Wildlife in Antarctica
WHAT LIVES ON THE FROZEN CONTINENT
Whales and orcas
Playful humpbacks are the most common species, and the most entertaining, as they breach and slap their enormous flippers. Stunning orcas can be seen hunting in the channels, and minke whales are large and gentle. But the world’s largest animal – the blue whale – is less commonly seen, but stretching as long as three double-decker buses, a sighting is unforgettable. Read more about whale watching in Antarctica
Your image of cuddly seals is sure to change after you’ve come face to face with an enormous, tooth-raked bull elephant seal, or one of the Antarctic’s most ferocious killers – the 3m long leopard seal.
Elephant seals are found on the beaches of Patagonia and the South Atlantic archipelagos. True to their name, males can be up to 6m long, and have trunk-like noses. Their thick blubber keeps them warm – as well as providing energy reserves, as the female cannot hunt while suckling her young. Leopard seals – with their spotted coats and shark-like teeth – are found around the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they hunt penguins and even other seals, as well as fish and seabirds.
Atlantic fur seals are somewhat cuter – especially the tiny pups, which can be seen in December and January. Over a million of them breed on the island of South Georgia alone. Noisy Weddell seals can be seen barking around the Antarctic, diving beneath the ice to catch fish.
Four species of albatross breed here, crowding onto the tiny island of South Georgia to rear their young. They can fly up to 1,000km in a day, as they migrate between the Antarctic and warmer weather further north. Giant petrels are similar to the albatross. These huge birds are both scavengers and aggressive predators; the largest colonies can be found on the Falkland Islands.
These diminutive, flightless birds are one of Antarctica’s biggest draws. Rookeries are surprisingly noisy – and smelly! – but their antics make them entertaining, and something about their upright waddle makes them strangely human. You’ll burn through memory cards on your first wild penguin sighting – and they’re not afraid of humans, so while you are not allowed to approach them, there’s nothing to stop them approaching you.
Six species can be found here; with Adélie and gentoo being the most common. Adélies are only found along the Antarctic coast, and these feisty little birds have been known to be aggressive towards anyone approaching – survival is tough down here, and they have to fight for it! Many thousands of pairs can be seen on the islands, along with gentoo penguins which can be recognised by their prominent tails.
The long, tufted orange “eyebrows” of the macaroni penguin makes it one of the most appealing and comical. They nest in large groups on South Georgia – also popular with chinstrap and king penguins, who prefer the warmer waters away from the Antarctic continent. King penguins resemble the striking emperor penguin, with yellow patches on their head and neck.
Emperor penguins are the best known and, at 115cm tall, the largest species – but their sheltered breeding grounds – often far inland or on floating ice – makes them hard to reach.