The wildlife in Antarctica is, rather unsurprisingly, quite a hardy lot. Given that the only creature tough enough to actually endure life this far south, all year long, is the elusive and majestic Emperor Penguin (more on this super-Antarctic hero later on) it means that all the incredible animals one encounters on a cruise to Antarctica must migrate here at the beginning of every southern Spring. They swim and fly for thousands of kilometres, feeding on krill (but mostly each other) to reach the resplendent shores of the Antarctic Peninsula. Once here, they must contend with harsh living conditions – from overcrowded nesting sites to stiff competition for a decent feed – all in arguably the remotest and most inhospitable place on earth.
Well, for us humans, at least.
Yes, Antarctica may often be dubbed ‘the most inhospitable place on earth’ but there are quite a few species of wildlife that may argue this but we doubt any would ever get offended. After all, when you live in a world where -2 degrees Celsius is considered ‘balmy’, you may just develop a bit of a thick skin.
What Makes Antarctic Wildlife Cope with Such Harsh Conditions?
The wildlife of Antarctica has collectively developed plenty of coping mechanisms over time, each peculiarity, specific to a species, helping creatures hold on to their body heat, primarily.
Wind & waterproof coats – On an Antarctic cruise, you’ll soon realise that the most important item of clothing down here is the high-tech outerwear you’ll be supplied with before every Zodiac excursion on land. Your body does a fine job of making its own heat and your mission, each and every time you head outdoors, will be to hang on to that, come rain, hail, or snowstorm. And so it is with Antarctic wildlife, who’ve developed exceptional outer layers, none more impressive than that of the Emperor Penguin, who boasts four layers of scaled feathers, which helps it stand tall and strong even in the harshest of blizzards. The waddle is a natural consequence of all the layers, as you may well imagine.
Thick layers of body fat – In our world, an abundance of body fat is seen as detrimental to our health but, in Antarctica, it’s seen as a smart evolutionary move and absolutely pivotal for survival. Fat is a fabulous insulator so down in these icy lands, the more is definitely the merrier. You may not want to look like a male elephant seal but boy, you’ll surely want to be as insulated as one if you lived here. Plus, you’ll live comfortably on your own fat if food is scarce so, you know, that’s a pretty nifty party trick anyway.
Small hands, feet and noses – Alongside your outer jacket and pants, your most valued item of clothing on Antarctic expeditions are going to be your thermal socks, scarf and, perhaps more importantly than anything else, your insulated gloves. That’s because it’s much easier to lose heat via your extremities than it is via your well-padded torso, so you won’t want to keep those escape-hatches open for very long once the wind starts howling. Antarctic wildlife evolved smaller limbs and beaks for precisely this reason: keeping the extremities smaller (than usual) allows seals and penguins to hold on to their heat even more efficiently.
Larger sized, overall – The most astonishing aspect of Antarctic cruising experience is coming face-to-face with the unique creatures that live down here and finally realising how big they actually are. It figures that being small and dainty probably won’t bode well for your survival in this kind of climate but, seriously, coming eye-to-eye with a 70cm-tall, 5kg-hefty Adelie Penguin is pretty awe-inspiring and, mind you, that’s the smallest penguin you’ll see in Antarctica. And it’s still about twice the size of its Galapagos cousin. Generally speaking, the wildlife of Antarctica is larger in size than any of their counterparts found in other regions of the world and this too is an evolutionary trick to help them cope with the harsher conditions. Large and heavy means there’s less surface area from where heat can escape so chunkiness and tallness are favourable traits for survival. This explains why the Emperor Penguin, the only one of its kind able to thrive in Antarctica over winter, is the largest and heaviest of all penguins and the one who has the smallest beak, given his enormous size.
The reason we talk about evolutionary adaptations of Antarctica’s wildlife is that because, contrary to popular belief, hardy creatures like penguins didn’t actually evolve in cold climates. They may be associated with icebergs and ice floes (and even ice creams) nowadays, but these are some of the most ancient creatures on earth, who appeared on our planet long before the ice caps were ever formed, in much warmer climates, in fact.
The Most Common Wildlife You’ll See in Antarctica
Want to come and meet some of these incredible creatures? Then don your outwear (obvs) put on your gloves and scarf and head to Antarctica.
Here are just some of the most awe-inspiring creatures you may meet at the end of our world.
Adelie Penguins – If ever there was a size vs fierceness correlation in the animal world, it’s certainly bypassed the Adelie, a creature whose struggle to survive starts from the moment it hatches. Mother Adelies typically lay two eggs simultaneously, with the ‘survival of the fittest’ starting from the time the two fledgelings emerge. Only one will survive the first week of life and, at just 3 months of age, it will leave the colony, sea bound, and won’t return until it’s ready to breed, about 4 years later. Being the smallest penguin in Antarctica means the Adelie has plenty of predators but it also means it has developed a seriously feisty attitude. Watch out for this guy: get too close and you’ll be sure to hear all about it.
Chinstrap Penguin – The most recognisable penguin in Antarctica, the funny-looking Chinstrap is only marginally larger than the Adelie and are often found floating on icebergs, out in the open ocean. They can literally pop up, anywhere! The most abundant penguin species in the southern continent, their colonies can number in the hundreds of thousands and can be found in the South Shetland Islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula proper. Unlike the hardy Adelie – who actually breeds in Antarctica and hangs around all year long – the Chinstrap prefers to head north of the sea ice during the winter, returning to breed between October and March every year. The largest colony of Chinstrap penguins is found on the South Sandwich Islands, famously home to over 1.2 million of the furry little guys. Overall, they are believed to be the most numerous of all penguins with an estimated 7.5 million individuals found in the southern seas.
Gentoo Penguin – The third-largest penguin in Antarctica (after the King and Emperor) the Gentoo really stands out from the crowd with its red beak, orange feet and rather distinctive strut. Reaching just over 90 cm in height, the Gentoo is a stunning swimmer, reaching speeds of up to 30km/hr, making it the fastest diving bird of all.
Leopard Seal – The biggest threat to the above-mentioned wildlife, the Leopard Seal is one of the most formidable Antarctic hunters of all and also one of the most awe-inspiring. Females can reach up to 500kg in weight and 3.8m in length, a breathtaking size indeed. It can stay underwater for up to 15 minutes at a time, something it does when it plans a surprise attack on unsuspecting penguins. Not surprisingly, whales are the only known predator of this arduous creature.
Weddell Seal – Only slightly smaller than Leopard Seals, although with a much smaller head, the Weddell species is a much more placid animal and are renowned for not veering too far away from their breeding colony. They’re renowned for being the mammals that live further south than any other and are actually considered one of the hardiest Antarctic wildlife of all. Astonishingly, they can dive underwater for up to 80 minutes, which helps them travel underneath pack-ice to find the ideal spot to break through for a breather. Weddell Seals spend the entire winter underwater and only come up for air when they need to, in order to avoid the harsh Antarctic winds. For all of these incredible reasons, the Weddell is also the most studied seal of them all – and possibly the cutest too!
Crabeater Seals – The most abundant seal in Antarctica is the Crabeater, whose numbers in summer can reach 15 million. Although they don’t spend winters on the peninsula, the Crabeater does spend its entire lifespan in the Antarctic region, covering humongous distances every season. Like to take a wild guess what the Crabeater feeds on?
That’s right: prawns.
Southern Elephant Seal – The Mirounga Leonina may have drawn the short end of the straw in the looks department, but don’t let that fool you. What he lacks in aesthetics he more than makes up for in sheer gargantuan size and fierce brutality, albeit very rarely (the latter, not the former). The largest of all seal species, the Southern Elephant male can weigh up to an impressive 4 tonnes, whilst the more svelte ladies usually weigh in at about 800kg. That peculiar trunk at the end of a male seal’s snout is air-inflatable and the bellowing trumpet which the animal can produce is reminiscent of an elephant’s trumpeting, hence its common name. Elephant Seals live in harems, with one beach master (the almighty male king) overseeing a group of several dozen females. Although you may be thinking ‘lucky devil’ right now, take note that protecting all those females from aggressive competition is hard work, most especially when you’re made up of 90% blubber. Southern Elephant Seals are most often seen on cruises heading over to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Read more about Antarctica seal species where you’re likely to see them
Wandering Albatross – Over 100 million birds head for the rocky shores of Antarctica every spring, and out of all of those, the Wandering Albatross stands out miles ahead of the rest of his flying compañeros. Boasting the largest wingspan of any bird on earth, up to 3.5 metres, the Wandering Albatross is so named for its penchant for travelling. We dig that wanderlust! Breeding on several islands in the region, they are commonly found on the southern coastline of New Zealand and spend most of their life in flight, landing only to breed and feed.
The Most Majestic Wildlife Living in Antarctica
It is often said that the rarest sightings can bring about the most astonishing emotions. And that’s certainly the case when it comes to the most majestic Antarctic wildlife of all.
There’ll be celebration in abundance, no doubt, if you’re lucky enough to spot one or all of these amazing animals:
Killer Whales – The Killer Whale’s favourite hunting grounds in summer are the coastal areas of Antarctica, and as numbers can be as high as 7,000 per year, chances you’ll see one on an Antarctica cruise are actually pretty good. Predatory and migratory, the Killer Whale can cover astonishing distances every season, reaching opposing ends of our planet in mere months. Few sights are as breathtaking as that of a killer whale gliding in the wake of your Antarctica cruise ship. Even more impressive is witnessing a gang of Killer Whales fishing for seals en masse.
Humpback Whale – The most abundant baleen whale in the region, the Humpback is an absolute delight to admire, due to being one of the most active. They love breaching, slapping the water with fins and tail and, generally speaking, put on a bit of a show for onlookers. In Australia, migrating Humpbacks are a popular sight along the eastern coastline in winter, which is where they head to breed after spending the summer feeding in waters of Antarctica. They are perhaps the least ‘graceful’ of all the whales, and tend to be slow swimmers due to their very un-ergonomic (ie. fat and stocky) shape, but they certainly are among the most gracious. Not only are they slow enough so boats can keep up with them, but welcoming enough to tolerate close(er) encounters. This makes them among the most adored subjects on Antarctica cruises.
Emperor Penguins – The Emperor Penguin is not only one of the hardiest creatures you’ll ever come across but, possibly, one of the most beautiful too. Born with a super cute fluffy fur which insulates it from the cold, the Emperor is born in springtime (hence breeding in winter) so it can spend its first summer feasting abundantly. This is the only thing that’ll allow it to survive its first winter. The built-in doona with which they are born is great on land but kind of sucks in water, so chicks must shed before they ever take to the sea. Emperor Penguins are true team players and waddle close together to soak in collective warmth in the winter months. This giant huddle is one of the most fascinating wildlife spectacles on earth.
Emperor Penguins are most commonly seen in colonies in South Georgia, so if they’re at the top of your must-see list, make sure you include a stopover here in your cruise itinerary. If heading only to the Antarctic Peninsula, you’d have to be quite lucky to see an Emperor.
But, if you do, it’ll certainly be the highlight of your entire trip.
Infected with Antarctica-fever yet?
Go on, what are you waiting for? Go on one of our voyages to Antarctica or check out the amazing deals we are currently offering on our South Georgia and Antarctica Cruises and turn that National-Geographic-video-envy into your reality this year.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”