The first thing that comes to mind when you hear Antarctica might be ice. And rightly so. Miles and miles of ice, sub-zero temperatures, heavy winds, Antarctica is home to some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. But despite these conditions, the Antarctic is full of life. Some of the most amazing and best adapted creatures on the planet live on this beautiful and forbidding continent. This is, in fact, one of the joys of Antarctica travel. During the summer, when the ice begins to melt, you can see the world come alive with activity. Elephant seals square off to battle for mating rights, while seabirds and penguins migrate across the land. As the thaw sets in, the world comes to life. So, read on to learn a bit more about some of this spectacular wildlife.
The penguin is one animal that is most naturally associated with Antarctica. Although Antarctica is not the only continent on the planet where you can find penguins, it does have more species of penguin than anywhere else on the planet. There are 18 different species of penguin living in Antarctica, divided between the mainland and the outlying sub-Antarctic islands. One of the most spectacular is the emperor penguin, the largest penguin in the world. Emperor penguins weigh on an average of 30kg and can live their lives without ever touching the land. They live and breed on the sea ice. In fact, the males spend the depth of the winter inland guarding the eggs while the females return to the water to feed and build up the mass they lose when birthing. During this time, they brave temperatures as low as -50°C and wind speeds up to 200kph, spending as long as 115 days in the extreme cold without food.
Another of the most impressive penguin species is the king penguin. They are second only in size to the emperor penguin, though they average at about half the mass – 15kg. This is one of the most recognisable of all the penguin species. In fact, most of the pictures that you have seen of penguins are in this species. Unlike the emperor penguins, king penguins live on the sub-Antarctic islands surrounding the main ice shelf. One of the great things about king penguins is that they breed twice a year. This means that you have a great chance to see king penguin chicks on an Antarctic cruise.
Size isn’t everything. So, just because emperor and king penguins are the largest representatives of their species doesn’t mean that they are the only ones worth seeing. One of the smallest penguin species are the chinstrap penguins. They weigh in at an average of 4.5 kg and stand at an average of less than a meter. They get their name from the distinctive line of black feathers that wraps around their chin. Chinstrap penguins favour the rocky coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Antarctic or sub-Antarctic islands. Males gather stones to make their nests, and the battles can be pretty intense when those nests are threatened. Just slightly heavier – 5kg – are the Adélie penguins. Like the Emperor penguins, they live on the pack ice of the continent and sub-Antarctic islands. These are colourful characters and a joy to watch.
Antarctica isn’t all just penguins. Another type of animal that’s well-represented is the seal. The largest of the seals in Antarctica is the elephant seal, which can weigh up to 3,700kg in males and up to 800kg in females. These massive creatures can spend up to 20 minutes under water and can go down to 500m below the surface. Another impressive sight is the leopard seal. Leopard seals have a beautiful coat and are strong predators, ambush hunters that prey on penguins, squid, fish, and even other seals. They can be almost 4 meters long and weigh between 300kg and 500kg when full grown. While leopard seals live solitary lives, others like the Crabeater and Weddell seals form huge breeding colonies and have highly distinctive social interactions.
Antarctica is also home to a wide range of birds. There are species of duck and gull endemic to the continent and the outlying islands, as well as terns, skuas and petrels. The snow petrel is a lovely species, one of the smallest native to the continent. Snow petrels are pigeon sized and snow white in colour. This is a long-lived species, extremely hardy, and able to survive on the pack ice or continuous ice throughout the region. Another remarkable species of bird that you can see on Antarctica tours is the wandering albatross. This bird is adapted to the strong winds common to the South Polar Region. They have the longest wingspan of any bird in the world, measuring up to 3.5m from tip to tip. This lets them glide on the strong winds and take extremely long flights. To have the best chance of seeing a wandering albatross, you’ll want to visit the South Georgia region just before the middle of November.
Though we’ve touched upon a few species already, this is just the tips of the iceberg. In the sea surrounding Antarctica, you’ll have the opportunity to spot a number of whale species, including the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have lived on earth. Then there’s the orca, or infamous “killer whale,” so named for its tendency to feed on seals and squids rather than plankton. In addition to these, there are the humpback, fin, and sperm whale also native to the region, but even this doesn’t exhaust the variety.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the species you’ll be able to see during your Antarctic explorations. If you’d like to learn more or look into the dates of our Antarctic cruises, feel free to contact us.