Top Ten Animals You Can See in Antarctica
There is plenty of animal life in Antarctica. It is a continent of extreme conditions but a range of well-adapted animals thrive here at various times of the year.
Despite the extremely cold conditions, there is a surprising amount of animal life in Antarctica. It is a continent of extreme conditions but animals still manage to thrive here at certain times of the year. We'd like to take a few minutes to discuss the most incredible animals you can expect to find on Earth's most southerly continent, and if you're interested in this, you might also like to read about the most common misunderstandings about Antarctica or perhaps you'd like to learn more about how to travel to Antarctica from Ushuaia. Most Antarctic animal life revolves around the sea in some way or another – so, if you are headed on an Antarctic cruise with us, then you will have the chance to see some pretty spectacular animal life. Keep reading to learn a little more about Antarctica's wildlife.
10. Adélie Penguins
Along with the emperor penguin (which we will come to later), Adélie penguins are the most southerly of the Antarctic's penguins and they can usually be found on pack ice on the Antarctic continent and the sub-Antarctic islands. They are a smaller branch of the penguin family, weighing in at an average of 5kg and standing less than a metre tall. They breed from November through to February and you will likely hear and smell a rookery before you see it. Adélie penguin rookeries are large and noisy affairs and can contain up to half a million birds! The males begin the breeding process by making a nest from pebbles that sits slightly above the land to protect it from flooding. Like most other penguin species, both Adélie penguin parents will share duties on rearing the young; due to their pebble nests and their gender egalitarianism, Adélie penguin behaviour has fascinated scientists for decades. If seeing Adélie penguins is at the top of your Antarctic bucket list, make sure to browse our Ross Sea and East Antarctica trips, and you can read more about these charming little guys on our Adélie penguin blog.
9. Chinstrap Penguins
Chinstrap penguins are one of the smallest penguin species. They weigh an average of 4.5kg and they stand around 65cm tall. They are called "chinstrap penguins" because the line of black feathers that wraps around their chin looks like a strap. Usually, they can be found breeding on rocky coasts away from the ice from December to March on Sub Antarctic and Antarctic islands as well as the Antarctic Peninsula. Like the Adélie penguins, they can be quite noisy and aggressive, particularly when it comes to the stones that make up their nests. In order to attract a mate, male chinstrap penguins collect the pebbles to construct an impressive nest. Other males steal each other's pebbles and this can cause a lot of miniature battles! Their eccentric behaviour, as well as their unique markings, make chinstrap penguins incredibly entertaining. Chinstraps are most commonly seen on the Antarctic Peninsula.
8. Leopard Seals
The leopard seal is so named because the spots on its coat are reminiscent of the famous big cat. Much like their namesakes, leopard seals are fierce predators; they hunt a range of other smaller seals, as well as fish, squid, and penguins. Leopard seals are usually ambush hunters; they often wait below an ice shelf for the birds to dive in to find food. Fully grown leopard seals usually weigh between 300-500kg and they can be anything from 3.5m to 3.8m long. You'll find leopard deals on the sub-Antarctic islands and on open pack ice — usually quite close to penguin colonies during their breeding season. Leopard seals are particularly impressive hunters and they are a real thrill to spot out in the wild!
7. Elephant Seals
The Elephant seal is the largest of all seals in Antarctica and, as you might expect, it's particularly exciting to spot one on an Antarctic expedition. Male elephant seals can range anywhere from 1,500 kg to 3,700kg, whilst females are considerably smaller, ranging between 600kg to 800kg. This huge difference in size between the sexes is called sexual dimorphism and it is so prevalent that sometimes females are mistaken for juveniles when they are spotted next to male elephant seals. You can find elephant seals throughout the Antarctic region – particularly on sub-Antarctic islands, and they are sometimes found as far north as the Falkland Islands. They are impressive divers and can dive for as long as 20 minutes, to depths of 500 metres. If you'd like to see elephant seals in large numbers during their breeding season, browse our range of Antarctica and South Georgia trips.
6. Snow Petrels
The snow petrel is one of the Antarctic's smallest, yet most beautiful, animals. They are pure white in colour – apart from their black eyes and beak. They are about the same size as a pigeon but they are fascinating because, even though they are so small, they are mighty and manage to survive the extreme Antarctic conditions and wind-chill. In fact, snow petrels are so hardy that they can live for up to 20 years. Because snow petrels are so long-lived, their population is extremely healthy; in fact, there are around 4 million snow petrels in the wild! They lay their eggs from October to November and chicks will fledge within 6 weeks. Snow petrels can be found near open water – close to packing ice or continuous ice around the Antarctic continent.
5. King Penguins
Like emperor penguins, king penguins are much-loved representatives of all penguins found in the Antarctic. When you see a photograph or a cartoon of a penguin, it is usually a king or an emperor penguin. The king penguin is the second-largest penguin species after the emperor and it weighs in at around 15kg on average. They can be identified with the golden feathers around their head and necks, and they can be found living on sub-Antarctic islands – where they form huge colonies on slopes close to the sea. Major colonies can be seen on South Georgia, Macquarie Island, Prince Edward Island, and Heard Island. They have a complex breeding system in that they can be either late or early breeders and will raise an average of two chicks every three years. This means that there are always juveniles king penguins around to spot if you're on a cruise or an expedition. If you're fascinated by king penguins and you want to
4. Emperor Penguins
Of all penguin breeds, the emperor penguin is synonymous with Antarctica and it is perhaps the most recognisable of all the animals that live in the Antarctic. It is probably one of the birds you picture when you imagine your own dream voyage to Antarctica. Emperor penguins are the largest penguins in the world – weighing in at an average of 30kg. With golden feathers around the sides of their heads, they are easily identifiable — that and the fact they live all around the coasts of Antarctica. While a few land colonies have been found in recent years, emperor penguins almost always live and breed on sea ice — many emperor penguins will never step foot on land in their entire life. Emperor penguins are fascinating as they are the only penguin species to breed in the depths of Antarctica's extremely brutal winter. The first emperor penguins were seen on Captain Cook’s second voyage in the late 18th Century and Lt. Reginald Skelton found the first breeding colony on Scott’s voyage in 1901-1904. Emperor penguins are most easily seen on voyages to the Weddell Sea.
3. Killer Whales (Orcas)
The killer whale is the biggest species of dolphin, and they are also called "orcas" — which is a much less scary name... There are approximately 100,000 killer whales in the world and they can be found in every one of the world's oceans; however, the majority of killer whales are based in Antarctica, so the southern continent is, without doubt, the best place to see them. Recent research by the NOAA has found that there are four distinct forms of killer whale – known as Type A, Type B, Type C, and Type D. All four types of orca can be found in Antarctica and each one favours a different type of prey. If you travel with Expeditions Online to Antarctica during the summer season, there is a good chance of spotting Killer Whales in the wild – particularly in and around the Antarctic Peninsula and the Ross Sea. It's incredible to actually see orca's in the wild, with the Antarctic ocean and icebergs as the backdrop.
2. Wandering Albatross
The wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird on the planet and it is an impressive sight to see. Their wingspan can measure 3.1-3.5m and, as a result, they can fly for great distances without using much energy. These long flights are possible due to the combination of their wingspan and the Antarctic's strong winds. Wandering albatrosses are usually found in the sub-Antarctic regions – particularly on exposed ridges on Prince Edward Island and South Georgia. Once they find a mate, they stay with them for life. However, they are a species that is in decline because of the number of deaths from longline fishing hooks, and their slow breeding process has meant their numbers are not being replaced fast enough. For the best chance to see wandering albatross, you should visit the ocean around South Georgia before mid-November. If you want to plan ahead and get a good deal, you might like to check out our Antarctic cruise deals.
1. The Blue Whale
The blue whale is the largest and loudest animal ever known to have existed. Although not exclusive to Antarctica, the blue whale is so impressive that it had to be top of our list. On average, they are around 30 metres long and they weight around 200 tonnes. Their calls are louder than a jet engine and their heart is the size of a small car. The blue whale species narrowly escaped extinction in the 20th Century due to aggressive whaling practices, and although the numbers are recovering, they are still under pressure and sightings are rare. Before whaling, there were over 200,000 blue whales in Antarctica and at its worst level in 1966 it was thought that their population in Antarctica dipped to only 400. But now there are around 2,000 in the Antarctic Ocean – which is a similar number to the blue whale populations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In the nutrient-rich Antarctic waters during summer, blue whales gorge on krill in before migrating to their feeding grounds in the warmer waters of the equator. And, given that we only ever visit Antarctica during its summer season, there is always a chance that you will spot a blue whale on many of our Antarctic cruises! Late-season cruises like this one offer the best opportunities for whale watching in Antarctica.
Antarctic animals are unlike anything you'll find in any other part of the world. This extreme landscape has ensured that only very specific animals can survive and thrive. The stunning Antarctic backdrop is worth visiting in itself, but many of our guests come to see some of the rarest animals on Earth. If you’d like to see some of these Antarctic animals in an environmentally sensitive way, accompanied by our experts and guides, please browse our range of Antarctic cruises and expeditions. And please get in touch if you have any questions. We specialise in cruises and expeditions on small ships and we’ve personally visited all of the destinations we offer. Start planning your dream Antarctic expedition today and perhaps you'll see a few of the incredible animals on this list!
Following are some trips where you can see some of the top 10 Antarctica animals:
Expeditions Online Newsletter
Sign up to be an Expeditions Online insider and receive info on exclusive deals, discounts and more!