It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of taking an Antarctic vacation was little more than a pipe dream for most travelers.
Daring explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton captured worldwide attention with their Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century. But regular Antarctica travel didn’t become possible until the late 1960s, and only 14,762 people took a trip to Antarctica in 1999-2000.
Antarctic adventures have become much more accessible in recent years, and tourist numbers have grown rapidly as a result. These days more than 40,000 people visit Antarctica annually. Most of them are attracted by the diverse array of Antarctic animals, the incredible natural landscapes, and the icebergs and ice shelves that loom large over its waters.
The coldest temperature ever recorded– a frigid -128.9° F– was at a research station on the Antarctic continent. Around 98% of its landmass is completely covered in ice, sometimes a couple of miles thick. Luckily, the weather is warmer in the maritime areas, where most Antarctica tourism takes place.
Taking an Antarctica cruise offers an opportunity for close encounters with all kinds of Antarctic wildlife. Animals found on and around the frozen continent range from megafauna such as the Blue Whale, the world’s largest mammal, to smaller extremophile species that can withstand hostile weather conditions. Then there are the various famous species of Antarctic Penguins, Seals, Dolphins, and Birds.
But you’ll also learn about the incredible history of the continent. Those early Antarctic expeditions were extraordinary dramas more intense than anything Hollywood could dream up. Want proof? Read the saga of Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, or watch The Endurance or Shackleton.
With climate change at our doorstep and Antarctic ice melting at a rapid pace, the continent is now at a pivotal point in history. So here we’ll take a look at some of the many stunning animals of Antarctica we think are worth saving for future generations to enjoy…
READ MORE: Fascinating Facts About the Blue Whale
BENEFITS OF TAKING AN ANTARCTICA CRUISE
As previously mentioned, travel to Antarctica has become more and more popular in recent years, thanks largely to the increasing availability of Antarctic cruises.
Some environmentalists have expressed concern about the effects mass tourism could have on the continent in the future. But the Environmental Protocol of the Antarctic Treaty has numerous provisions that were designed to protect the planet’s most pristine ecosystem from the ravages of overtourism.
Massive cruise ships are not allowed to visit Antarctica. But small ship cruises allow travelers to explore both the mainland and sub-Antarctic islands, whether via motorized zodiacs, kayaks, or on foot.
Human history in Antarctica is just over 100 years old. But travelers will hear stories and visit historic sites (including scientific research stations) that help to illuminate our existence and persistence there.
Antarctica is still a place where we, as humans, remain guests– observers who are not well-suited for long-term survival in such an extreme environment. An Antarctic holiday provides a picture of what the world looks like with minimal human footprint, while also showing where we might be heading due to our heavy carbon footprints elsewhere on the planet.
Taking an Antarctic cruise provides access to all of these insights and more. Modern cruise ships can endure the rough seas of the Drake Passage and navigate nimbly between islands. They can take tourists to places that can’t be reached by car or plane. And they can introduce you to a dazzling array of animals that seemed largely unconcerned with human presence.
- Antarctic Birds
- Antarctic Penguins
- Antarctic Seals
- Antarctic Whales and Dolphins
- Other Wildlife In Antarctica
The birds of Antarctica are an exceptionally hardy sort. Antarctic birds tend to be large, seagoing, and require water-resistant plumage and layers of fatty insulation. They’re also incredibly plentiful: Over 100 million birds flock there in the spring months to nest and breed.
Many birds of the Antarctic can be spotted among the region’s myriad islands and mainland coasts. They often congregate in colossal colonies, taking advantage of those areas that aren’t snow-laden. Here are some of the coolest Antarctic birds you’re likely t0 spot during your cruise to Antarctica:
With a wingspan that can measure over five feet, the Antarctic Skua (a.k.a. Brown Skua or Southern Great Skua) ranks among the biggest seabirds on the planet. They’re very intelligent and notoriously adept at stealing and snacking on Penguin eggs and chicks. Some scientists are putting the Antarctic Skua into three separate species, designating the Falkland Skua and Sub-Antarctic Skua as their own thing.
Mistaken as Penguins from time to time, Blue-eyed Shags are exclusive to the Southern Hemisphere, but they’re more closely related to Cormorants. They have distinctive rings around their eyes– either blue, purple, or red– and pink feet. Blue-eyed Shags primarily breed and nest on islands. Their nests are constructed of rocks and plants, and located in areas with no ice whatsoever. Some of the subspecies are endemic to the various Antarctic islands.
Yet another impressively large bird, the Giant Petrel can weigh in the ballpark of 17 pounds and have wings that span nearly seven feet! They range the southern seas and all the countries therein, including Antarctica, Argentina, Australia, Chile, and South Africa. A scavenger by nature, a la Vultures, Giant Petrels have various unsavory nicknames such as gluttons, stinkers, and stinkpots.
The only land bird native to continental Antarctica, the Snowy Sheathbill is a ground-dweller that feeds on just about anything it can find, including Penguin vomit. This bird’s list of weird delicacies gets much more questionable, but we won’t go there. Despite their horrendous diet, Snowy Sheathbills have gorgeous feathers just as pure as the driven snow, with a bit of pink around their faces. When they do fly, they migrate north to sub-Antarctic islands, like South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands.
Of the 10 species of Albatross in Antarctica, the Wandering Albatross (a.k.a. Snow Albatross or Goonie) is the largest. Its wings can span more than 11 feet, and the long-distance flyer can weigh upwards of 24 pounds. Though these birds spend most of their lives flying (around 75,000 miles a year), they do settle down long enough to breed on the sub-Antarctic islands.
READ MORE: Beautiful Birds of the Galapagos Islands
Seeing Penguins in Antarctica are often the highlight of a cruise to the frozen continent. There are six Penguin species spread across the mainland and surrounding islands, including Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo, King, and Macaroni Penguins.
Even if your trip to Antarctica only takes you to the mainland, you’re still virtually guaranteed to find yourself encountering numerous types of Penguins.
This is because the preferred Penguin habitat for nesting is right along the shore, where there’s typically little to no ice accumulation in summer (December through February in the southern hemisphere).
Both the tiniest and most widely distributed species of Penguins in Antarctica, Adélie Penguins stand around two feet tall and weigh around eight pounds. There are nearly 4 million breeding pairs, grouped into just over 250 colonies. Interesting Adélie Penguin facts include that they were named after the wife of Jules Dumont d’Urville, the explorer who discovered them. Other distinctive characteristics include a white ring around their eyes and black feathers concealing much of their red bills.
As their name suggests, Chinstrap Penguins have a narrow black stripe beneath their chins. Due to an ear-piercing call, they are also sometimes referred to as Stonecracker Penguins. Chinstraps are the most prominent species on mainland Antarctica, with an estimated population of 8 million. They also like to breed in Argentina, Chile, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands.
Emperor Penguins are famous for being the largest penguin in Antarctica, standing around four feet and weighing around 50 pounds. They were brought to global prominence as the subject of the documentary, March of the Penguins. They tend to breed on the pack ice and shelf ice, though a few colonies have recently been seen inland on the Antarctica Peninsula.
Gentoo Penguins are identified by the bonnet of white running across the back of their heads, and a bright orange beak on the front. They also have the longest tail of all the world’s Penguins. Other fascinating Gentoo Penguin facts includes them being the fastest (swimming up to 22 mph), and they actively shun colony members that stray from their partners. An estimated 600,000 Gentoo Penguins breed and nest on Antarctica’s iceless shorelines.
The second largest Penguin species, King Penguins can grow up to three feet tall and 40 pounds. They look similar to Emperor Penguins, but with a longer, straighter bill and more orange colorings as opposed to the Emperor’s mix of white, pink, and yellow. There are over 2 million breeding pairs of King Penguins on the sub-Antarctic islands, particularly the Crozets, South Georgia, and the Prince Edwards Islands.
Macaroni Penguins are also quite partial to the sub-Antarctic islands, especially Heard Island and South Georgia. They have serious orange bills for snouts and comical bright orange feathers that sweep across their foreheads like really long eyebrows, spiking out at the sides. Macaroni Penguins are on the smaller side, only growing to 27 inches tall and tipping the scales at about 10 pounds. They have a large, though currently declining population of nearly 9 million breeding pairs.
Southern Rockhopper Penguins
The stars of the 2007 animated film, Surf’s Up, Southern Rockhopper Penguins are tiny. They don’t even reach two feet tall, and barely weigh five pounds. Like the Macaronis, they have prominent orange beaks and distinctive eyebrow feathers. But the Southern Rockhopper’s eyebrows are yellow and twirl up at the outer edges. As their name suggests, they’re more likely seen jumping on rocks rather than waddling.
READ MORE: Penguins in Antarctica Photo Essay
Much like an East Africa’s Maasai Mara, Antarctica travel occasionally offers a brutal look at the circle of life in action. Wherever you find massive colonies of Penguins, you’re likely to find hungry Seals eager to prey on them.
Seals in Antarctica are excellent hunters. These pinnipeds (a group that also contains Walruses and Sea Lions) are actually related to land-based hunters such as Bears, Weasels, and Wolverines. So their stalking acumen should come as no surprise.
Here’s a look at some of the Antarctic Seal species you’re likely to see during your visit:
Antarctic Fur Seals
The Antarctic Fur Seal is the only eared seal found in Antarctica: The rest are “earless” or “true” seals, which are better adapted for swimming. Though small compared to other types of Seals, males can still reach over six feet long and exceed 200 pounds. More than 90% of the planet’s population breeds on the South Georgia Islands, in numbers that can be as large as four million in a given breeding season.
With pale fur that helps them blend in, Crabeater Seals live on the pack ice of Antarctica. They’re slender and long, reaching over eight feet from elongated snout to tail. Despite what their name suggests, Crabeater Seals don’t actually eat crabs (they prefer krill). They’re thought to be the most populous of all Seal species. In fact, after humans, they’re the most prevalent large mammal on the planet!
The Leopard Seal is the second largest of all land animals in Antarctica, with females stretching to 11.5 feet and weighing 800-plus pounds. These predators are ferocious, hunting everything from fish and Penguins to Crabeater Seals. Its name derives from the black spots on its chest and underside. During the summer, male Leopard Seals spend several hours a day swimming upside down and singing underwater.
Southern Elephant Seals
The largest pinniped on the planet, Southern Elephant Seals dwarf even giant mammals like Polar Bears. Males reach over 6,000 pounds, and get nearly 20 feet long. They have trunk-like noses that resemble small Elephant trunks, and emit something akin to a roar during mating season. These behemoths also have the ability to dive 3,000 feet deep and stay under water for two full hours.
The most southerly living mammal in the world, Weddell Seals are named after British Captain James Weddell and inhabit Antarctica’s icy coasts. They have little heads and cute faces, reaching up to 10 feet long and 1300 pounds. They are dark with pale patches, particularly on their bellies. Weddell Seals like to swim below the ice, which protects them from predators and makes prey fish easier to see.
Hanging out almost exclusively on Antarctic pack ice, Ross Seals are dark on top and silver below. They have huge eyes and are relatively small at around six feet long. Like Weddell Seals, they’re named after the British explorer who discovered them. Discovered over 150 years ago, they’re one of the least-studied Seal species. They’re noted for making twitter-y sounds, but we don’t yet know the purpose of this call.
ANTARCTIC WHALES AND DOLPHINS
There is something incredible humbling about seeing Whales in Antarctica up close. Whether it’s a full-on breaching or just the flip of a tail as it dives, their massive size puts the significance of us as humans into perspective.
Antarctic Whales are plentiful both in number as well as in diversity. There are 15 Whale species found in the continent’s waters, including the world’s biggest Whale, endangered Whales, and the most ferocious of the cetacean species.
Whale watching is truly an essential experience for anyone who cruises to Antarctica. Here’s a look at some of the types of Whales you’re most likely to see:
The Blue Whale is the largest Whale species and the largest animal ever to have existed (including dinosaurs), weighing 300,000 pounds and measuring nearly 100 feet long. Luckily, they are very gentle giants. Unfortunately, that has made them susceptible to whale hunting, and they are currently on the IUCN’s endangered species list. The call of the Blue Whale is so loud that it can be heard underwater hundreds of miles away, making it the loudest animal on the planet as well.
Another extremely large baleen Whale, Humpbacks extend over 50 feet and reach more than 30 tons. They have exceptionally long pectoral fins, notably knobby heads, and sweet songs. Humpback Whales are visible in many places because they migrate some 16,000 miles a year, and they breach with ridiculous acrobatics. Unlike Blue Whales, Humpbacks have a sizable population some 80,000 strong.
Though tiny in terms of cetaceans, Minke Whales still average more than 20 feet long (think London double-decker bus) and weigh up to 10 tons (think 8-10 cars). Southern Minke Whales like to frequent sub-Antarctic seas and are commonly sighted where flocks of seabirds are feeding. Unfortunately, much like Giant Petrels, they have the reputation of being a bit smelly.
Southern Right Whales
Once hunted to near extinction, Southern Right Whales are gradually recovering from commercial whaling. They now have a population of around 10,000 individuals. They’re particularly common in the sub-Antarctic seas, most notably around the Crozet, Falkland, South Georgia, and South Sandwich Islands. They’re particularly social, often swimming at the surface and getting friendly with boats.
Long-finned Pilot Whales
Long-finned Pilot Whales are actually Dolphins, growing to be about 20-25 feet long and weighing between 4,000 and 7,000 pounds. They’re known as social animals, and some have been observed living in single pods over a lifetime. They likely got the “Whale” moniker because they’re longer and more rotund than other Dolphins. They feed mainly on squid, but will eat fish and octopus as well.
Also known as Killer Whales, Orcas are also Dolphins (the largest members of the family). They’re found in most oceans, and not at all unusual in the frigid, but food-rich, Antarctic waters. Orcas are sometimes referred to as “Wolves of the sea” because they’ll often hunt in packs. They’re also diverse eaters, feeding on everything from fish to marine mammals, Penguins, and smaller Whales.
Found only in the southern hemisphere, Dusky Dolphins are relatively small compared to other cetaceans– a little over 5.2 feet and around 160 pounds. They have small noses and beautiful markings, including white streaks along their sides and a bi-colored dorsal fin. They are coastal Dolphins, and are typically spotted swimming close to shore.
Though an unlikely sighting, the rare Hourglass Dolphin is occasionally found swimming in Antarctic waters. The species’ classification is based largely on eyewitness accounts, and less than a dozen Hourglass Dolphins have been studied. They’re mostly black, with patches of white along the back that resemble an hourglass. They have stocky bodies, under 6 feet long and possibly over 250 pounds. They travel in pods of ten or less and are most often seen feeding alongside other groups of cetaceans.
READ MORE: Seeing Antarctic Whales Up Close
OTHER WILDLIFE IN ANTARCTICA
While Penguins, Seals, and Whales rightfully dominate the show, there are other species of interesting Antarctica wildlife, including large seafaring creatures and miniscule land dwellers. You won’t likely see these weird animals during a visit to Antarctica, but they’re fascinating nonetheless.
You’ve probably heard of the Giant Squid, but the Colossal Squid (a.k.a. Antarctic Squid) is even larger. It has a bigger mantle and shorter tentacles (proportionally), and reportedly reaches nearly 50 feet in length and over 1,000 pounds. Its eyes are believed to be over a foot in diameter. Colossal Squids have been spotted in seas around New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. Remains of their gigantic beaks have been found inside Sperm Whales, which frequently have scars credited to Colossal Squids.
Denizens of the ice-cold waters of Antarctic seas, Icefish are notable because they have unusual blood. Unlike most animals, which have hemoglobin that carries oxygen and turns their blood red, Icefish lack hemoglobin, and thus have somewhat translucent blood. Scientists still aren’t quite sure how Icefish get enough oxygen around their bodies.
Despite a name that suggests it is nothing more than a smidge, the flightless Antarctic Midge is the largest (purely) land animal on Antarctica. They measure a whopping half-inch long, stay in their larvae stage for about two years, then have a lifespan of roughly 10 days as adults.
Too weird, disturbing, and/or cute (depending on your perspective) to ignore, tardigrades are tiny little creatures that are just over a millimeter in size. They’re often called “water bears” because they have plump bodies and stuffed animal-like qualities. In my eyes they look a little like the caterpillar from Disney’s Alice In Wonderland. Amazingly, they can withstand temperatures below -300º Fahrenheit, as well as survive in outer space. –Jonathon Engels