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Wildlife in Antarctica

Following in the footprints of explorers such as Shackleton and Scott, you can experience incredible wildlife in Antarctica, which seems surprising on first glance in this land of superlatives – the coldest, windiest and driest location on Earth.


Despite these harsh conditions, penguins are there in almost unfathomable quantities, and are perhaps the most iconic of all Antarctica’s wildlife. There are actually 18 species found in the sub-antarctic, although on the continent itself you are likely to see 4 of these – the well photographed Emperor, the Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo. Marvelling at their elegance and impressive speed in the water, then witnessing them waddling awkwardly on land can be an entertaining sight. Penguins are known to be some of the most endearing and intriguing wildlife on earth, famous for their 'smart' attire and comedic waddle. During your time in Antarctica and south Georgia, you will hopefully see myriad species, proving each is unique and special in physical characteristics, and character.

King Penguin

King penguins are the second largest penguins weighing between 11-16 kg (24-35 lb) and have an eye-catching patch of orange-gold feathers on their neck. They are expert divers, consistently plummeting to depths of over 250 metres, but on land they appear slow and clumsy. They feed on small fish and squid and are not as reliant on krill and other crustaceans as the majority of predators in the Southern Ocean. Unlike their closest cousin, the emperor penguin, they prefer warmer climates and live and breed in subantarctic territories such as South Georgia and other vegetated temperate islands.

Chinstrap Penguin

Chinstrap penguins are the most common in the Antarctic regions, with an estimated population of eight million pairs found just on the Antarctic Peninsula. Their name comes from the narrow black band of feathers across the cheeks; and their black head make it look as though they are wearing a helmet making them easy to identify. Their diet consists of mainly crustaceans and they can dive to up 70 metres.

Gentoo Penguin

The gentoo penguin has the most prominent tail of all penguins, and as they waddle along on land, it sticks out behind, sweeping from side to side. They are the third largest after the king and emperor penguins and are the least prominent in the Antarctic, but with about 300,000 breeding pairs are still quite numerous. They are characterised by a white patch around and behind the eye that joins on the crown, and have a bright red-orange beak. Nesting often occurs amongst tussocks, and on the Antarctic Peninsula on stony ice-free areas and beaches. It is unknown where the name ‘gentoo’ comes from.

Adélie Penguin

Adélie penguins, named after the wife of French Antarctic explorer Dumont d’Urville, are true Antarctic penguins and are confined to the coastal waters of the great white continent. They are a medium sized penguin with black heads and beaks, but their most noticeable feature is a white ring around the eye. Like all penguins, they are expert divers and can plunge to depths of 175 metres, but catch most of their food at the surface and it consists mainly of krill. During the winter they roam around the pack ice and in summer they return south to the Antarctic coast.

Macaroni Penguin

The macaroni penguin is one of the six species of crested penguin. The crest refers to the orange tufty plumes on their eyebrows and was thought to resemble the bizarre ‘Macaroni Coiffure’ of the 18th Century and gave birth to their name. They are probably the most abundant in terms of numbers with an estimated population of 12 million pairs, and the majority are found inhabiting the subantarctic islands such as South Georgia. They are extremely colonial and often forming massive colonies of hundreds and thousands, generally nesting on hillsides and rocky cliffs.

St Antarctica Emperor Penguin With Chicks Vladsilver

The largest of all penguins—an average bird stands some 45 inches tall. These flightless animals live on the Antarctic ice and in the frigid surrounding waters. Penguins employ physiological adaptations and cooperative behaviors in order to deal with an incredibly harsh environment, where wind chills can reach -76°F. They huddle together to escape wind and conserve warmth. Individuals take turns moving to the group’s protected and relatively toasty interior. Emperor penguins spend the long winter on the open ice—and even breed during this harsh season. Females lay a single egg and then promptly leave it behind. They undertake an extended hunting trip that lasts some two months!

Penguin Illustration


The numbers of seals in the Antarctic continue to rise steadily as they are protected by various agencies and don’t have predators such as polar bears.

Leopard Seal

Named for their black-spotted grey coat, Leopard seals are fierce predators, the most formidable hunters of all the seals and the only ones that feed on warm-blooded prey. Every austral summer, leopard seals wait in shallow water off major penguin breeding colonies to capture newly fledged birds going to sea for the first time.They have a surprisingly diverse diet consisting of other seals, penguins, fish and krill and can often be seen around the peninsular.

Antarctic Fur Seals

Identified by their visible earflap, dark coarse fur, and their ability to arrange themselves into a standing position, Antarctic Fur Seals can be seen around the peninsular. During the breeding season they primarily reside on sheltered rocky, sandy and gravelly beaches on sub-Antarctic islands, otherwise they lead a largely pelagic existence, pursuing prey wherever it is abundant.

Southern Elephant Seals

Instantly recognisable for the trunk-like inftable snouts of the males, which they use to make extremely loud roaring noises, especially in the mating season. The largest of all seals, they migrate in search of food, spending months at sea and often diving deep to forage, often reaching depths of 400 to 1,500 metres. They return to their rookeries in winter to breed and give birth. Though both male and female elephant seals spend time at sea, their migration routes and feeding habits differ: males follow a more consistent route while females vary their routes in pursuit of moving prey. They live in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters that feature brutally cold conditions but are rich in the fish, squid, and the other marine foods they enjoy.

The Crabeater Seals

The most abundant seal species on Earth, with around 30 million living in Antarctica’s icy oceans, and can be found in the circumpolar pack ice at the edge of the Antarctic continent and adjacent islands. This ‘pack ice’ is year round in Antarctica, acting like an enormous boundary, advancing and retreating with the seasons. Compared to their cousins, they are relatively slender and pale and surprisingly agile on land, their movements often appearing snake-like, especially as they slip from solid blocks of ice into the cold Antarctic water. They will sometimes spend 16 hours a day diving for krill, staying underwater for about 5 minutes at a time. generally to be seen around pack ice.

Weddell Seals

Spend much of their time below the Antarctic ice, avoiding their main predators, orcas and leopard seals and can dive up to 2,000 feet down and stay under for up to 45 minutes. As with any seal, they must come up to breath so if a natural opening or ‘crack’ cannot be found, they often use their teeth to open and maintain air holes in the ice. They have the southernmost range of any seal, but find the chilly waters rich with their favourite prey, including cod and silverfish as well as small crustaceans, octopuses, and other marine creatures. They do not migrate often and are commonly found within a few miles of their birthplace. generally to be seen around pack ice.


Baleen Whales

Some of the largest animals on earth, Baleen whales have baleen plates which filter their food, rather than teeth. It is possible for you to spot six different species of baleen whale during your time in Antarctica.

The humpback whale

One of the most easily recognized whale species. Reaching between 40 and 50 feet in length, a humpback whale can weigh up to 48 tons. They are identified from other whales due to their large flippers, the hump on their backs and the white markings on their underside. These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash and are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. They migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator.

Antarctic minke whales

Reach up to 35 feet in length but by whale standards they're still small, being no more than 10m long and weighing nine tonnes. Minkes are active swimmers and their sleek profiles allow for fast swimming. Three things that set the Antarctic minke apart are its larger size, a dorsal fin that is set farther back on the body, and asymmetrical coloration of its baleen. The presence of the majority of the Antarctic minke population in the Southern Ocean in the austral summer is linked to the profusion of krill in the surface waters. They lunge through the bioluminescent schools of the shrimp-like crustaceans and gulp large quantities as do other rorqual whales.

Blue whales

The largest animals on Earth. They rule the oceans at up to 100 feet long and upwards of 200 tons. Their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant. They look true blue underwater. The blue whale has a broad, flat head and a long, tapered body that ends in wide, triangular flukes. Their diet is composed nearly exclusively of tiny shrimp-like animals called krill.

Southern Right whales

Their name comes form being considered the "right" whale to hunt. They are easy to identify as the enormous head is covered in white-coloured outgrowths of tough skin forming a unique pattern on each whale, like fingerprints in humans. They are also commonly seen breeching—turning in mid-air and falling into the water with the side or back of the body. Using their long and numerous baleen plates, they feed on small plankton, including pelagic larval crustaceans and copepods. They are only found in the oceans of the southern hemisphere, inhabiting waters close to Antarctica during the summer and migrating northwards to coastal areas in winter.

Sei whales

Slender cetaceans, although they are more robust than fin whales, and they can be identified by their inverted "V" shaped water spout which reaches 6-8 feet into the air. Although they are fast swimmers, possibly the fastest of all cetaceans, they tend to swim in pods of 3-5 animals, and rarely dive deeper than 300 m. They will take whatever is in abundance locally, whether it be fish, squid or plankton, as long as it is shoaling. An average sei whale can eat about 900 kgs of krill and small fish a day.They inhabit all oceans and adjoining seas except in tropical and polar regions, feeding in cold water during the summer before migrating to warmer waters to breed and give birth to their calves.

Fin whales

The second largest animals in the world after the blue whales and the fastest swimming of all the large whales. They are very streamlined in shape and generally free of external markings, scarring and parasites. They are more sociable than the other rorquals often being found in small pods of 2-7 individuals and feed mainly on krill and schooling fish. They have been observed circling schools of fish at high speed, rolling the fish into compact balls then turning on their right side to engulf the fish. Like other large whales, the Fin's feed in the spring and summer at high latitudes in the Arctic or Antarctic and migrate towards warmer waters in the winter months.

Toothed Whales

Unlike baleen whales, toothed whales have only the one blowhole and, of course, teeth. There are 65 species of toothed whale including all dolphins and porpoises and they are smaller than their baleen cousins. Discover below the species of toothed whale you may encounter on your expedition to Antarctica.


The largest of the dolphins and one of the world's most powerful predators. They are immediately recognizable by their distinctive black-and-white coloring and are the intelligent, trainable stars of many aquarium shows. They hunt in deadly pods, family groups of up to 40 individuals and they feast on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even whales, employing teeth that can be four inches (ten centimeters) long. They are known to grab seals right off the ice. They also eat fish, squid, and seabirds. Though they often frequent cold, coastal waters, orcas can be found from the polar regions to the Equator.

Southern bottlenose whales

Large beaked whales that reach 6-9 m in length. They have a stocky body shape and large, bulbous forehead that overhangs a short, dolphin-like beak. They live in groups of 1-25 and feed primarily on squid, but are also known to eat fish. When hunting at the surface near shore, it may consume pelicans and other birds, hitting the prey with its fluke before devouring it. They are able to dive for over an hour. They inhabit the South Atlantic, Indian and South Pacific Ocean and are found in open water beyond the continental shelf in water deeper than 1,000 m.

Sperm whales

Easily recognized by their massive heads and prominent rounded foreheads. They have the largest brain of any creature known to have lived on Earth. They are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet in search of squid to eat and must hold their breath for up to 90 minutes on such dives. They eat thousands of pounds of fish and squid—about one ton per day. Sperm whales are often spotted in pods of some 15 to 20 animals which include females and their young, while males may roam solo or move from group to group.