Antarctica surrounds the South Pole, with most of its land beneath up to 3 km of ice and snow. Mountains emerge here and there along the coast and across the wind-whipped interior. The ice sheet holds 70% of the Earth’s fresh water, locked up in huge chunks of snow and ice sheets.
Much of Antarctica’s inland areas remain largely unexplored. The diverse sea life in the Southern Ocean (the southernmost waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans) and along the continent’s edges, however, draws researchers, explorers, and nature lovers from the world over.
Although there are no vertebrate animals on Antarctica’s interior (in fact, the land fauna consists of only a few invertebrate species, of which the largest is the dime-sized wingless midge), several kinds of birds populate the shorelines.
These lovable, flightless mascots of the South, include 17 species of which 7 breed and live in the Antarctic itself or the islands beneath the Antarctic Convergence. Lines of these penguins belly-flop off icebergs into the ocean. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the chinstrap, Adélie, and gentoo gather in enormous colonies during the summer breeding season. The emperor is the largest of all the penguins, standing over 1 metre tall and weighing 30 kg. Read more about penguins...
At least ten species of whales have been spotted in the Antarctic Ocean. These whales include humpback (the most common), minke, right, blue, sei, finback, orca, pilot, sperm, and southern bottle-nosed. The blue whale, the largest animal on Earth, exceeds 30 metres in length and weighs over 150 tons. Just as exciting to watch are the three species of dolphins—Commerson's, dusky, and southern right-whale—that swim and dive in graceful arcs throughout the southern seas.
Six seal species thrive in the Antarctic Ocean. Watch crabeater and Weddell seals slide off ice platforms in search of crabs and fish. Catch a glimpse of the large leopard seals which feed on fish, penguins, and other seals. Sharp teeth line their powerful jaws. Ross seals, more difficult to spot and less well known, eat fish, as do the smallest seals in the region, the fur seals. Seal hunters once coveted fur seals for their thick, high-quality coats. The huge elephant seals feed on squid around the Scotia Arc Islands and the Antarctica Peninsula. Males weigh nearly 4.5 tons and grow to lengths of up to 6 metres long.
Forty-four species of seabirds, including albatrosses, circle the sky around the Antarctic and subantarctic. Fulmars, medium-to-large-sized petrels, scavenge dead birds and seals along the coast. Other petrels feed only at sea. Long, hook-tipped bills provide shearwater petrels with the means to pull squid from the water. Some species also pursue their prey beneath the water’s surface. Sheathbills, skuas, Arctic terns, cape pigeons, and petrels all live near the coasts and over the seas of Antarctica.
Uninhabitable to land animals it is paradoxically home to abundant wildlife during the summer season. The seas surrounding Antarctica are nutrient rich and support a huge biodiversity. Krill is the keystone species of the ecosystem and the source of food for whales, seals, squid, icefish, penguins, albatrosses and many other birds. Birdlife, including penguins as well as many seals use the Antarctic coast to haul out and breed during the summer, making them particularly visible to visitors. Although 98% covered with ice, there are many mountainous and spectacularly beautiful regions of Antarctica, particularly the coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Sea