Megan & Mike Jerrard

For the wildlife obsessed, traveling to Antarctica is a dream. From penguins and seals, to magnificent whales, and a seabird which has the largest wingspan in the world, the creatures here are truly captivating, and wildlife is one of the continents biggest draws.

The experience is unrivalled. Much like the Galapagos Islands, animals here roam free and have no fear of close contact with humans. So whales will swim within 100 meters of your boat, you can sit next to a colony of seals without disturbing them, and penguins will walk over your toes.

Despite the extensive ice covers, strong winds, and lack of sunlight, a surprising amount of hardcore wildlife call the icy continent their home. The vast Southern Ocean teems with marine mammals and seabirds; the following of which travelers to Antarctica can expect to see.

antarctica

Penguins

Penguins are synonymous with Antarctica, and without a sighting, no trip to Antarctica would be complete. Though luckily, penguins are the most common bird you can expect to see.

Living in colonies which are larger than some cities, you can catch their awkward waddle during shore excursions, and watch as they toboggan down icy slopes on their tummies. Though also keep an eye trained on the water during your cruise – while penguins are a flightless bird, their wings have evolved into flippers, and they propel themselves through the water like dolphins do.  

penguins

There’s no mistaking the colorful Emperor Penguin who stands at over a meter tall, though you’re actually unlikely to see him. Emperor penguins breed in colonies quite far inland, which is difficult to reach on a cruise. Most ships visit the Antarctic Peninsula where the conditions are less extreme, and Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins are the most commonly seen. They may not be as majestic as the Emperor or King Penguin, but are just as cute.

penguin

Seals

Penguins may be the most beloved wildlife on Antarctica, however make sure you allocate some of your attention towards the seals. There are six different species which live here, and while they spend a lot of their time underneath the sea ice, they leave the water to breed, rest and molt.

seals

By far the largest and most incredible is the Elephant Seal – adult males can exceed 5 meters in length, and weigh over 4,000 kilograms. Lucky for human visitors they are largely inactive on land, and move quite slowly when they decide to.

Other species include the Leopard Seal, which is the fiercest and fastest and snacks on penguins and other seals from the pack ice, the Crabeater Seal, Antarctic fur Seals, and the Weddell Seal, the cutest of the lot.

seals

Whales

Antarctica boats some of the best whale watching in the world, and the opportunity to kayak or take a zodiac within 100 meters of these giants of the sea is incredible.

Whales are attracted to Antarctica by the huge swarms of Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean, and you have the chance to see the Minke whale, Southern right whale, Blue Whale, Humpback whale, Sperm whale and orca, or Killer whale.

The Humpback whale is the most abundant in the region, and they are also the most active making them absolutely magnificent to see in person. They hardly breach, though do tend to put on a show for onlookers, slapping the water with their tail and fin, and being open to relatively close encounters.

whale

Seabirds

If you’re not a bird nerd before visiting Antarctica, the continent will turn you into one. Over 100 million birds migrate to Antarctica every spring, including penguins, albatross, petrels, prions, fulmars and skuas. Nesting grounds are found scattered across subantarctic islands and other ice free locations on the continent and peninsula. Since these are quite limited, they become very crowded, very quickly.  

The Albatross is perhaps the most iconic seabird of the region, with the largest wingspan of any living bird on earth (up to 3.5 meters). Using this wingspan they can glide for hours in the ocean wind, and only return to land to find a mate and breed.

South polar skuas are another interesting seabird, with bulky broad wings, in a grayish brown. They are the most prominent in the Antarctic, and make their nests close to penguin colonies as they feed on eggs and chicks. They are notorious for their scavenging behavior and will chase other seabirds to make them drop their food.

sea bird

Dolphins

While dolphins can be found in Antarctic waters, you’re more likely to spot them in the Beagle Channel as you begin / end your cruise. Of all the dolphin species, Dusky dolphins are the smallest, though are highly sociable, so it’s likely that when you spot one, you’ll spot quite a few. They often travel in groups of 20 – 25.

And despite its name, the killer whale is the largest of the dolphin species, found in all oceans including the Antarctic region. Fierce predators, they hunt for fish, penguins, seals, and even other whales. Antarctica has the largest population of orcas in the world, estimated at some 70,000 animals.

Krill

Antarctic krill are the most abundant and successful animal species on earth. There are estimated to be 500 million tones of Antarctic krill, which is the main reason the Southern Ocean attracts so many whales.

One of the most important animals in the Antarctic food chain (though admittedly at the bottom), they are shrimp-like crustaceans, mostly transparent, although their shells have a bright red tinge and small pigment spots. Their swarms can sometimes stretch for kilometers in every direction, and with thousands of them packed tightly together, the water turns red or orange, a phenomenon which can be seen from space.

That said, schools are only occasionally seen at the surface during daylight – they usually stay deep in the water and only come to the surface at night.

Practical Information

It’s important to keep in mind that where wildlife is concerned, you’re in Antarctica to observe and not interact. As visitors to this pristine land, our job as travelers is to make sure our actions don’t interfere with the behavior of native species.

There are many gateways to Antarctica, however most cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina. To experience an intimate encounter with the above wildlife you need to book a cruise which specifically includes land based excursions. International regulations limit the number of people allowed on land at any one time, so large cruise ships with 500 passengers will only offer a “sightseeing” experience.  For expedition cruises which take you ashore, we recommend Chimu Adventures.

Due to the remoteness of the destination, travel insurance is mandatory for any Antarctica cruise. Covermore offers unlimited cover and includes coverage for land based activities as well as life onboard the cruise. Contact us for a quote today.

seal

Self-proclaimed adrenalin junkies and lovers of the outdoors, Megan and Mike Jerrard have explored all 7 continents and have got incredible stories and photos to show for it. You can check out their latest adventures on their blogs Mapping Megan and Waking Up Wild or on Instagram @mappingmegan and @wakingupwild.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.