Wildlife of Antarctica – Why Wimps Need Not Apply

The wildlife in Antarctica is, rather unsurprisingly, quite a hardy lot. Take the Emperor Penguin as an example. This fella is so hardy he doesn’t even bother to migrate to warmer waters in winter. Instead, he ploughs through what are arguably the harshest climatic conditions on our planet. All so he doesn’t need to go anywhere. Not quite sure if that’s the epitome homebody, pure laziness, or evolutionary genius.

Whatever the case may be, the leader-of-all-penguins is one of only a handful of animals which manages to survive over the winter in our southernmost continent. Oh, and he does more than that, in fact. Emperors don’t just survive the Antarctic winter, but they actually pick this as the ideal time to breed. The Chuck Norris of the penguin world, you say?

You may be right.

Emperor Penguins wildlife

Emperor Penguins.

Antarctica is often called ‘the most inhospitable place on earth’ but there are quite a few species of wildlife that may argue this, although we doubt any get really 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.

The Most Majestic Wildlife Living in Antarctica

For being such a harsh and barren place, Antarctica – or more correctly, her waters – are surprisingly inviting for many species of wildlife.

Here are the most awe-inspiring creatures you’ll come across, when you visit on an Antarctica cruise.

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 supercute 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 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.

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.

Pups are born in Antarctica in spring and spend the summer feasting away. By the time winter comes, all are ready to spend months on end in the water, a much warmer option than vegetating on the frozen, mind-blowingly cold land. This is only one of about six different types of seal living in these frigid waters, and you’re bound to see seemingly endless colonies of various seals sunbathing on ice sheets.

Elephant Seal.

Elephant Seal.


Killer Whales –The Killer Whale’s favourite hunting ground 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 rather 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 fantastic whale-watching trips.

Humpback whale breaching.

Humpback whale breaching.

The Most Common Wildlife You’re Likely to See in Antarctica

Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins – The three most commonly seen on the Antarctic Peninsula, these three penguin amigos may not be as majestic as the Emperor, yet are just as cute. But they are kind of wimpy, when you consider the fact that they spend the winter at sea, or sheltering in nests made from rocks on floating icebergs. Like penguins? Check out these ten penguin species you need to know before travelling to Antarctica.

Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo

From left to right: Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo.

Dusky Dolphins – Out of all the dolphin species, the Dusky is the smallest, measuring a mere 2 metres in length when fully grown. The awesome thing about the Dusky is that it is a highly sociable animal. So when you spot one, you can be sure there is at least a dozen nearby, if not more.

Dusky Dolphins.

Dusky Dolphins.

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.


Crabeater Seal.

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.

Young Wandering Albatross.

Young Wandering Albatross.


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 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”