The Wildlife of Antarctica’s Islands and Peninsula
Known as “the great white desert,” Antarctica doesn’t provide the most hospitable environment for life forms to survive. Antarctic animals have to adapt to extreme dryness, high exposure, and bitterly cold temperatures. But that just makes the few extremophile species who do thrive there all the more impressive.
Despite the rising temperatures caused by climate change, approximately 98% of continental Antarctica remains covered in ice, some of which is over two miles thick. The coldest temperature ever recorded on the planet was -128.9 °F, at a scientific research station on the Antarctic Plateau. And some areas of the continent’s interior receive less than two inches of rain per year.
But the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands are somewhat more livable, with around 35 inches of annual precipitation and milder temperatures that rise above the freezing point in summer. Here’s a look at some of the incredible Antarctic wildlife that call our coldest continent home, with tips on where you can hope to see them during an Antarctica cruise.
BIRDS OF ANTARCTICA
Every spring you’ll find over 100 million birds in Antarctica, breeding around the rocky coastlines of the peninsula and islands. The penguins are obviously the most famous attraction. But there are numerous other species, many of which have waterproof plumage and dense layers of fat that help them survive the continent’s harsh temperatures. Seabirds can be seen nesting along the shore during summer months, often in large colonies due to the scarcity of snow-free areas. Here’s a look at some of the more intriguing species:
Commonly known as the brown or Southern great skua, this big (20 to 25 inches long, with a 50 to 63 inch wingspan), bad (penguin eggs and chicks are a favorite snack) bird is one of the world’s largest seabirds. Some scientists split it into three distinct species, including the Falkland skua and the Subantarctic skua, while others insist all of them are a subspecies of the great skua (which is only found in the Northern Hemisphere). Regardless of how you classify them, this is one of the largest and smartest birds you’re likely to see in Antarctica.
Although they may look a bit like penguins, blue-eyed shags are more closely related to cormorants. Depending on who you believe, there are anywhere from eight to 14 different species of shags. All of them are found in the Southern Hemisphere and have blue, purple, or red rings around the eye (as opposed to a blue iris), white underparts, and pink feet. They primarily breed on islands, with unique nests made of rocks and plant matter that are generally located in ice-free areas. Some species are endemic to specific Antarctic islands, including the South Georgia shag, Crozet shag, and Macquarie shag.
The largest bird in the Procellariidae family (which includes petrels, prions, and shearwaters), you can tell a lot about the Giant petrel from its nicknames. South sea whalers used to call them gluttons, and they’re commonly known as stinkers or stinkpots, all of which refer to their aggressive approach to predation and scavenging. They’re huge birds, weighing up to 17 pounds with a wingspan up to 83 inches. Their range is similarly expansive, covering the Southern Ocean from Antarctica north to Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and Australia.
Also known as the Greater sheathbill, Pale-faced sheathbill, and Paddy, this mostly white (except for a pinkish face) species is the only land bird that is native to mainland Antarctica. But some birds do migrate north in winter, heading to South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands. It’s generally found on the ground, where it feeds on pretty much anything. The sheathbill will steal regurgitated food from penguins, eat their eggs and chicks, feed on carrion or animal (or human) feces, and has even been observed eating tapeworms from penguin intestines.
One of 10 different species of albatross you’ll find in Antarctica, the wandering albatross ranks alongside the Southern royal albatross as the largest of the “great albatross.” Also known as the snowy albatross, white-winged albatross, or goonie, these ginormous birds boast wingspans ranging from 8 to 11+ feet, and may weigh up to 24 pounds. They breed on the sub-Antarctic islands but spend most of their life in flight. In fact, some actually circumnavigate the Southern Ocean several times each year, covering more than 75,000 miles in the process.
PENGUINS OF ANTARCTICA
The Penguins of Antarctica are almost universally beloved, and the up-close encounters visitors are virtually guaranteed to have only make them more so. The continent and the sub-Antarctic islands are home to eight different species, some of which can be seen in fairly large numbers. Here are a few of the most commonly spotted species:
Adélies are the smallest (standing 18 – 28 inches tall and weighing 7.9 – 13.2 pounds) and most widely spread penguin species, with an estimated 3.79 million breeding pairs in 251 colonies all around Antarctica. They’re the only ones you’ll see getting around by sliding on their bellies. They were named after the wife of explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville, who discovered them in 1840. The species is easily identified by the white ring around their eyes and the black feathers that cover most of their red bills.
Chinstrap penguins are easily identified by the narrow black band under their chins, which, in conjunction with the black that covers the top of their heads, makes them look like they’re wearing a helmet. It’s also commonly known as the bearded, ringed, and stonecracker penguin—the latter due to its remarkably loud call. Breeding from Argentina and Chile to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands, they’re one of the most common penguin species, with an estimated population of over 8 million animals.
The emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of Antarctica’s penguin species, weighing around 50 pounds and averaging 4 feet in height. Along with the Adélie, they’re also the most southerly distributed of all penguin species. Although they typically breed on pack ice and shelf ice, several breeding colonies have been found on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years. Some are occasionally spotted on South Georgia Island where you’ll also find king (the second largest species), macaroni, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins.
Closely related to the Adélie and chinstrap penguin, the gentoo can be recognized by the bonnet-like white band that runs across the back of its head, its bright orange-red bill, and the longest tail of any penguin species. They’re the third largest species in terms of size (after the emperor and king), standing 20 – 35 inches tall and weighing 10 – 19 pounds. Their breeding population is estimated at around 600,000 birds, and they can often be found nesting on ice-free shorelines. Trivial tidbits: They’re the fastest penguin species, swimming up to 22 mph in the water, and typically punish infidelity by banishing offenders from the colony.
The second largest of all penguin species, king penguins stand 29 – 38 inches tall and weigh 21 – 40 pounds. They look a lot like the emperor penguin, with a big cheek patch and a yellow-orange section atop their chest. But where the emperor’s colors are more yellow, white, and pink, the king’s are mostly orange, and its bill is longer and straighter. With a population of 2.2 million breeding pairs, this species is primarily found on the sub-Antarctic islands, especially the Crozets, Prince Edward Islands, and South Georgia.
Southern Rockhopper Penguin
Made famous by the 2006 animated film Happy Feet, this small, crested penguin species can be found on sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand and South America. About two-thirds of their population of approximately one million pairs breeds on the Falklands and other nearby islands. With its bright yellow eyebrows and plumes extending from red eyes, you won’t mistake this for any other species. But of course, their defining trait is the way that they hop over obstacles rather than climbing
SEALS OF ANTARCTICA
Antarctic wildlife includes six different pinniped species, and you’ll likely see them countless times while exploring the continent. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of these seals were hunted to the brink of extinction for their prized skins and oils. But today they’re all protected, and their numbers have boomed as a result.
Antarctic Fur Seal
This is one of the smaller Antarctic seals, measuring up to 6.5 feet long and weighing between 200 and 500 pounds. It was originally discovered in the Kerguelen Islands (a.k.a. the Desolation Islands), but around 95% of the population breeds on South Georgia Island. There you’ll see males battling over territory from October through early November, with winners getting rights to breed with a harem of females. If you want to see the newborn pups, visit December through March when they start weaning and heading out to sea.
With a current population estimated anywhere from 7 – 75 million, the crabeater seal is one of the world’s most abundant large mammals. Like most Antarctic seals, they can live out on the sea ice, hunting for food underwater, but they’re often seen in vast breeding colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula. They typically grow to an average length of 7.5 feet and weigh arounds 450 pounds, but females are larger than males. Their fur ranges widely in color, from dark brown to a silvery white right before they begin to molt.
The second largest seal species (7.9 – 11.5 feet, 440 – 1,320 pounds) shares several traits with its namesake. They have spotted coloration; they’re long and muscular compared to other seals; and they are fierce predators, feeding on everything from squid and fish to penguins and other water birds, and even seal pups of other species. They aren’t great at diving, but can swim around 25 mph, and are generally more of a lone wolf than other seals (except during mating season). Current leopard seal population estimates range anywhere from 220,000 – 440,000 individuals.
Southern Elephant Seal
The largest seal species in the world, Southern elephant seals can weigh more than 8,000 pounds and measure some 15 feet long (although females are smaller, rarely exceeding 1,800 pounds and nine feet long). They’re primarily found on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia and Macquarie, but they’re also seen as far north as South Africa, New Zealand, and Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés. They’re excellent swimmers, able to stay underwater 20-30 minutes on a single breath and reach over 4,000 feet deep. Hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, their population is now estimated at more than 750,000.
Named after British sealing captain James Weddell, who discovered them during an 1820 Southern Ocean expedition (and for whom the Weddell Sea is named), this is one of Antarctica’s most abundant seal species. With a population of more than 800,000, they’re found fairly evenly around Antarctica, with the most southerly distribution of any mammal on the planet. They’re the only seals that prefer living in-shore as opposed to on free-floating pack ice but will often stay in the water to avoid blizzards in winter. They’re adorable, with mottled grey coats, cat-like noses and whiskers, and an upturned mouth that makes them look like they’re smiling.
WHALES & DOLPHINS OF ANTARCTICA
There are 15 species of whales found in Antarctica, migrating from more temperate waters in the north to feed in the southern nutrient-rich waters during the austral summer. Spotting these gentle giants from the deck of your ship is arguably one of the most exciting aspects of cruising the continent. If you’re lucky enough to see them surfacing right beside your Zodiac, be prepared for one of the most heart-pounding animal encounters the world has to offer.
Whales are generally divided into two main groups: toothed whales found in the Antarctic include sperm whales and orcas, the latter of which are referred to as “the wolves of the sea” because they hunt in packs; baleen whales that are regularly spotted in the Southern Ocean include fin whales, humpbacks, Minkes, seis, Southern right whales, and blue whales (the largest animals ever known to exist at 150 – 200 tons). Other cetaceans, including the Southern bottlenose whale, Arnoux's beaked whale, and the Southern hourglass dolphin are also present, but very rarely seen.
Many of these amazing Antarctic animals were hunted to Critically Endangered status in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite international regulations on whaling activities, Japan continues to hunt the Southern Ocean illegally, and some species still have not seen a recovery in their overall numbers. But the entire ocean surrounding Antarctica is a whale sanctuary, and organizations such as Sea Shepherd are fighting to protect these beautiful creatures for future generations.
Here’s a look at a few of our favorite Antarctic whale species:
The Blue Whale is the largest animal known to have ever existed—even bigger than the biggest dinosaur! These gentle giants can grow up to 98 feet long and weigh a whopping 173 tons (300,000 pounds). These beautiful creatures were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th century and remain on the IUCN’s endangered species list today. The call of a blue whale can reach up to 188 decibels, which can be heard for hundreds of miles underwater, thus earning it the title of the loudest animal on earth.
One of the larger species of baleen whale, humpbacks can grow up to 52 feet long and weigh more than 30 tons. They’re easily identified by their long pectoral fins, knobby head, and acrobatic surface activities, with breaching making them extremely popular among whale-watchers. Underwater, a distinguishing feature is the male’s haunting song, which may last for 10 to 20 minutes and be repeated for hours on end. Humpbacks annually migrate up to 16,000 miles and have a relatively robust population of more than 80,000 individuals.
One of the smallest species of baleen (meaning they filter-feed rather than using teeth) whales in Antarctica, the Minke averages just 21 – 23 feet long and weighs between 7 and 10 tons. The Antarctic or Southern Minke whale is relatively common in sub-Antarctic waters, where they’re often seen feeding in areas teeming with seabirds. They’re generally solitary creatures, usually feeding alone by swimming through schools of fish or areas rich in krill. They’re occasionally referred to as “stinky Minkes” due to the noxious odor of their spouting, and their calls have been measured at over 150 decibels.
Though they’re commonly known as the “killer whale,” the orca is actually the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They’re found all around the world and are a relatively common sight in the waters of the Southern Ocean. They have a diverse diet, which seems to vary widely among individual populations. Some orcas feed on nothing but fish, while others hunt marine mammals such as seals and other dolphin species. Many pods hunt together as a collective and have been observed attacking baleen whale calves and even adult whales.
Southern Right Whale
The Southern right whale was nearly hunted to the brink of extinction during the commercial whaling era. Now, a total population of approximately 10,000 remains worldwide. They’re most commonly seen around the sub-Antarctic islands of the Scotia Sea—including the Crozet Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands—but local populations have been slow to recover. They’re a curious, social species, typically active at the surface and interactive with boats and cruise ships.
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.