Even in the extreme environment of Antarctica, life not only survives but thrives. Its icy seas, isolated icebergs and snow-driven deserts are home to wildlife that surprise and charm all who visit them.
As a place of sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds, it is an understatement to say that Antarctica does not make for a very pleasant habitat. That is, at least, for most animals. But the animals that do live here aren’t like most animals. Each one of them is an inspiring story of adaptability, resilience and cooperation.
What animals live in Antarctica? Let's meet a few.
A seal sanctuary
Due to their thick layer of blubber and fur, Antarctic seals are extremely well-adapted to the freezing conditions. They actually even find the climate too hot, often having to take plunges into the icy water to cool down.
By far the most abundant and therefore the most commonly seen seal in Antarctica is the crabeater, so named for their ability to devour krill, which could in turn be described as tiny crabs. The adorable Weddell seals spend most of their time below the surface but can be found on the ice during their breeding season (November – December).
Whales - The giants of the sea
Antarctica is one of the world’s top whale-spotting places. During the Antarctic summer (October to March), there are about 10 species of whales that migrate south to Antarctica to breed and feed. February and March are generally considered the best months for whale watching, often having a greater variety of species and larger numbers to wow at.
From the moment we start crossing the Drake Passage, it is not uncommon to spot blue, fin, humpback, minke, orcas, and southern right and sperm whales close to the ship. And once we’re in the Antarctic Peninsula, they can appear out of nowhere and may even pop up right next to you when you are out on smaller explorer boats or kayaking.
Photo: Genna Roland, Andrea Klaussner, Chelsea Claus and Karsten Bidstrup
Penguins - Icons of the continent
Eight of the world’s 17 species of penguins can be found in Antarctica and in the sub-Antarctic area. They include Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo, king, macaroni, rockhopper, emperor and Magellanic penguins. Around twelve million penguins reside in the relatively mild conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula.
You will never forget going ashore to visit a penguin colony. Yes, they are very loud, and no one will ever describe their smell as enchanting, but you won’t care. Even if we are sure to keep our distance so as not to disturb them, witnessing these charming creatures shuffling around as they go about their business is something that will stay with you forever.
Penguins aren’t the only birds in Antarctica. This is a birdwatcher’s paradise that draws millions of birds across 46 species. From the deck of your expedition ship or when ashore during landings, keep your eyes peeled for wandering albatrosses, shearwaters, giant petrels, storm petrels, blue-eyed shags, diving petrels, cormorants, sheathbills, skuas, gulls and terns.
Photo: Genna Roland and Andrea Klaussner
Other animals in Antarctica
While no land animals live in here, the surrounding ocean is home to an array of animals that visitors on Antarctica cruises might not expect to see. From albatross to leopard seals to the blue whale, these cold seas brim with life.
Distinguished by its atypical combination of a white head and black brow, the black-browed albatross is a stunning sight. These giants have the longest wingspan of any bird - up to 11 feet. Since they're rarely seen on land, albatrosses use their wide wings to ride the ocean winds and sometimes glide for hours without a flap of their wings. They drink saltwater too, so they don't need to worry about stopping on land, except to mate and raise their young. Many of these winged wonders can live as long as 50 years.
Antarctica's only true land predators fall solidly under the "creepy-crawly" category. These tiny bugs are fascinating because they're the only creatures that can survive on Antarctica's surface. They handle the winter by going into hibernation - they stand perfectly still, and their blood works to keep them from freezing. This mechanism allows them to make it through to summer, when they get back to eating the smaller bugs.
Yes, these are killer whales, but they're not part of the whale family. Instead, the toothed mammal is largest member of the dolphin family and is highly social, travelling in groups called pods. Like dolphins, orcas use echolocation - bouncing sound off of objects to determine their location - to feed on fish, squid, birds and other animals. When born, a calf weighs up nearly 400 pounds and measures up to 7 feet in length.
The leopard seal is named for its spotted fur coat. Famous for their fierce nature, these animals are one of the primary predators in Antarctica, using their powerful jaws and long teeth to hunt fish, squid, penguins and even other seals. If voyagers on the cruise in Antarctica are lucky, they might catch a glimpse at a seal snare a bird as it enters the cold waters. Fascinatingly, leopard seals have no ear flaps, but rather hear from the inside.
As the beasts of the sea, blue whales grow as long as 100 feet and weigh more than 120 tons. In fact, their tongues alone can weigh as much as an elephant. While blue whales look true blue underwater, if any cruise critics see them breach, they'll notice that the mammal is more a mottled blue-gray. Their underbellies, meanwhile, take on a yellowish colour due to the millions of microorganisms that live on their skin.
At the near bottom of the food chain are krill: small, shrimp-like crustaceans that basically fuel the engine of the earth's marine ecosystems. Though you might never see these tiny swimmers on an Antarctica cruise, they will be swimming underneath the ship, feeding on microscopic phytoplankton. As one of nature's humorous ironies, the largest animal ever to roam the earth, blue whales, survive off of krill.